How I Made Partner: ‘Leverage Your Strengths, Lead With Your Actions, Follow Through and Deliver,’ Says Ella Zheng of Sanford Heisler Sharp

Posted June 22nd, 2021.

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“One initiative I found to be particularly helpful in building my practice and brand is that I always put myself into the clients’ shoes to understand how my legal skills could be most helpful.”

By Tasha Norman

Qiaojing Ella Zheng, Sanford Heisler Sharp, San Francisco.

Job title: Partner, Chair of Asian American Litigation and Finance Practice Group.

Practice area: Employment Litigation; Qui Tam/Whistleblower; Financial Services Litigation.

Law school and year of graduation: Thomas Jefferson School of Law, LL.M., 2010; Zhejiang University School of Law, LL.B., 2009.

How long have you been at the firm? I have been at Sanford Heisler Sharp for six years. I joined the firm in December 2014 as an associate.

Were you an associate at another firm before joining your present firm? I was an associate at a boutique law firm in San Diego for over two years after graduating from law school. I left the firm in 2014 to join Sanford Heisler Sharp. I was an associate here for three years. Then I was promoted to senior counsel in January 2018 and I worked in that role until my recent elevation to partner January 2021.

What’s the biggest surprise you experienced in becoming partner? The biggest surprise I experienced in becoming a partner was that the promotion came right after I returned from a three-month maternity leave and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This was at a time when law firms around the country and the world were laying off attorneys and staff, and some even going out of business. To me, this promotion not only reflected the firm’s recognition of my hard work over the past six years, but also sent a clear message that I, as a new working mother, can and will thrive here. I am very grateful for firm’s unwavering commitment to supporting attorneys’ professional growth even in times of unprecedented crisis. This is, in my view, the true meaning of partnership.

What do you think was the deciding point for the firm in making you partner? I believe my promotion to partnership is driven by the firm’s recognition of my entrepreneurship and ability to follow through and deliver. Since I joined the firm at the end of 2014, I had been devoting a lot of time to building a brand for myself and the firm in the Asian American community. Soon after I joined the firm, I quickly observed a scarcity of bilingual employment lawyers to meet the large demand for legal representation in the area of employment law, even in a racially diverse geographic area such as the Silicon Valley. So I created a business plan and launched a novel type of practice leveraging my unique background, language skills, and connections. My business initiatives were successful—I brought in my first case within three months of joining the firm; I have managed to build a good client base and a solid referral network that helps me generate cases consistently. In 2019, four years after I created this practice model, Sanford Heisler Sharp officially established the Asian American litigation and finance practice group and named me the chair.

I did not believe that an attorney with my background and skill set would be able to make partner. My legal career path is uncommon compared to that of most attorneys I know. I obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree from a top university in China, and was invited to complete a one-year Master of Laws (LL.M.) program at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

Before joining Sanford Heisler Sharp, I did not believe that an attorney with my background and skill set would be able to make partner in a prominent litigation firm like this. Through this journey, I realized that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to partnership in the legal profession. I hope that my unique path to partnership can be an inspiration to other attorneys, including those with less-traditional backgrounds, especially during this unprecedented time.

What’s the key to successful business development in your opinion and how do you grow professionally while everyone is working remotely? I think the key to successful business development is understanding what your (potential) clients need and knowing how to leverage your strengths. Many attorneys, especially junior attorneys, are often focused on legal technicality that they lose sight of what the potential clients’ goals or best interests are in a real-life situation. Focusing on the clients’ needs enables us to think practically, stay reasonable, and communicate effectively. One initiative I found to be particularly helpful in building my practice and brand is that I always put myself into the clients’ shoes to understand how my legal skills could be most helpful. Every year, I conduct a number of educational presentations tailored to the needs of various worker groups. I have provided workshops for low-wage workers on basic wage and hour laws, and have given seminar presentations to professionals on different types of discrimination and retaliation issues. I also write bilingual blog posts on matters specific to Chinese American workers, and provide expert commentaries on emerging legal issues to local and international media outlets.

During the pandemic, one measure I found to be particularly effective in professional development is the use of various social media which enabled me to maintain communication and relationships with existing and potential clients.

Who had the greatest influence in your career that helped propel you to partner? I have had many great mentors who had positive impact in my career development. My mentor and dear friend, a former deputy district attorney in San Diego, Anthony Samson had a significant impact on me in my early career. Tony taught me that the first step of good lawyering is being a good listener. Always listen carefully to your clients, the judges and your opponents. He also taught me to be a lawyer with integrity, and never shortchange myself because I am a woman of color. Tony passed away last December when I was in the middle of an arbitration trial and I miss him dearly.

I am also grateful to David Sanford, the chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp. David is a great leader and mentor. He has always been very open-minded about and supportive of my ideas and business initiatives. He excels at recognizing every individual’s talent and building a team with complementary skills. And David cares deeply about junior attorneys’ career growth and development. Only with David’s mentorship and support was I able to build a robust practice that I dreamed about and am proud of.

What advice you could give an associate who wants to make partner? (Would your advice be any different now than before COVID-19?): The legal profession is highly competitive; however, reflecting on my own career path, I would say that there is always a seat at the table for a self-starter with an entrepreneurial spirit. My advice: always think creatively, focus on leveraging one’s strengths, lead with your actions, and follow through and deliver. Make yourself be recognized for what you can and will do. I hope that my unique path to partnership can be an inspiration to other attorneys, including those with less-traditional backgrounds, especially during this unprecedented time.

Find more career advancement advice from our “How I Made It” Q&A series on law.com.

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