How I Made Partner: ‘My Path Was Nontraditional. I Was Co-Chairman of the Firm’s Practice Group Before I Made Partner,’ Says Christine Dunn of Sanford Heisler Sharp

Posted May 10th, 2021.

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“Because my path was nontraditional and nonlinear, I sometimes wondered whether I would ever be a partner. Achieving this goal feels like the culmination of a long career path.”

By Tasha Norman | May 10, 2021 at 12:53 PM

Christine Dunn, Sanford Heisler Sharp. 

Office: Washington, D.C.

Practice area: Co-chairman, Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group

Law school and year of graduation: University of Virginia School of Law, 1999.

How long have you been at the firm? I’ve been at Sanford Heisler Sharp for a total of six years. I first worked at the firm for a year and a half in 2008-2009. Then I left for what was supposed to be a three-month maternity leave, which somehow stretched into six and a half years as a stay-at-home parent. I returned to Sanford Heisler Sharp in the fall of 2016.

How long were you an associate at the firm? I was an associate for a year and a half during my first stint with the firm and another year and a half when I returned in 2016. In January 2018, I was promoted to senior litigation counsel and I worked in that role until my recent elevation to partner.

Were you an associate at another firm before joining your present firm? I was an associate at Williams & Connolly at the beginning of my legal career for two years. I left Williams & Connolly in 2002 to go work for the Department of Justice.

What year did you make partner at your current firm? January 2021.

What’s the biggest surprise you experienced in becoming a partner? Since returning to the firm in 2016, I have worked a part-time schedule, juggling my legal career with child care responsibilities. I give a lot of credit to Sanford Heisler Sharp for their willingness to embrace the idea of having a part-time partner. Not all law firms would be open to that arrangement. In the past five years, I’ve worked hard to prove that I can work a part-time schedule and still build a robust practice. I’m grateful that the firm recognizes that I can be a valuable member of the partnership while working part time.

What do you think was the deciding point for the firm in making you a partner? A year before becoming a partner, I was appointed co-chairman of the Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group. Having spent six years as a federal prosecutor early in my legal career, it seemed like a natural fit to represent victims of crime. Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group helps victims of crime seek justice against individual perpetrators and institutions who allowed the victimization to occur. It is the newest practice group at the firm and I’ve worked to help grow and develop the practice. I think that stepping up to take a leadership role in this new and growing practice area was the deciding point for the firm in making me a partner.

“My path to partnership was long with many transitions and starts and stops. If I had stayed at one firm for my entire legal career, the path to partnership would have been more direct. After starting in a Big Law firm doing mostly defense work, I left to be a federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, prosecuting civil rights crimes throughout the country. When I discovered Sanford Heisler Sharp, the idea of a private practice firm that was also committed to civil rights and social justice seemed like a perfect way to blend all of my prior legal experiences.

But after only a year and a half my career took another detour and I took almost seven years off from the law to be a stay-at-home parent.”

What’s the key to successful business development in your opinion and how do you grow professionally while everyone is working remotely? At its core, the key to business development is to get the word out about you, your practice and your firm. During the pandemic it’s hard to engage in traditional business development activities. My advice to associates during this time is to think creatively about nontraditional ways to get the word out. For example, I’ve made greater efforts to use social media to bring attention to my practice group. This past year during the pandemic, I’ve written more blog posts, provided more online expert commentaries and recorded videos on important legal issues. I’ve also attended a number of virtual conferences on topics relevant to my practice. It’s not ideal but it still provides an opportunity to meet other lawyers virtually and network.

What’s been the biggest change, day-to-day, in your routine since becoming a partner? Because I was co-chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group well before making partner, I was already in a leadership position at the firm. So, my day-to-day routine does not look substantially different now that I am a partner. Perhaps the biggest change resulting from making partner is that now I attend partnership meetings and get to have a voice in shaping the future and the policies of the firm.

Who had the greatest influence in your career that helped propel you to partner? I’ve had many transitions in my legal career. At each juncture, I was able to find great mentors who helped make me a better lawyer. Most recently, I’m particularly grateful to David Sanford, the chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp, for welcoming me back to the firm after a seven-year hiatus from the law. Stay-at-home parents often face challenges reentering the workforce after a long break. David Sanford allowed me to jump back into practicing law and, in doing so, opened up the path to partnership. Additionally, Steve Kelly, the co-chair in the Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group with me, has had a significant influence on my career trajectory and together we are building a practice group that I am truly proud of.

What advice would you give an associate who wants to make partner? I would tell associates to take every opportunity to develop strong relationships both with colleagues and clients. If you are going to make partner, you need senior lawyers at your firm to think highly of you, both professionally and personally. Take time to develop those relationships so you will have advocates in your corner pushing for you when it’s time for partnership decisions to be made. Also, make an effort to develop strong relationships with clients. If clients respect you and your work, they will spread the word and it could lead to additional business, something that will strengthen your case for making partner.

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