Q&A: Meet Sharon Nelson, Class of 2014

Written by  //  April 22, 2015  //  No comments

Nelson-Sharon-Dir-107x146Sharon Nelson is nationally known as an expert in digital forensics, information security, and information technology. She stands out as an innovator who has taken her expertise to the lawyer masses needing help in adapting to an increasingly digital world. Her writings and speeches on the technology needs of legal and corporate communities have helped lawyers nationwide understand and put into practice safe, secure and ethically appropriate technology, information and forensic systems. She has served her local bar association in a number of positions, and has been active in the Virginia State Bar through service in numerous capacities, including as its President. Sharon’s contributions extend to her many leadership roles in the ABA Law Practice Division, including significant contributions in publishing as the author of several ABA books, co-author of Law Practice magazine’s “Hot Buttons” column, and to ABA TECHSHOW. Among her many honors Sharon counts awards by her local chamber of commerce, the American Bar Association Law Practice Division, the Fastcase 50 Award,  a Legal Technology News award.

Sharon D. Nelson
President, 
Sensei Enterprises, Inc.
Law Offices of Sharon Nelson
Fairfax, VA

Where were you born and raised?  

I was born in New Jersey but grew up in Marshfield, Massachusetts. I was an antiwar activist who ran an underground newspaper — interesting times, to say the least. I graduated as valedictorian from my high school and the front page of the local paper said I took the high school apart brick by brick in my speech. I got booed and cheered in roughly equal proportions. At least no one was bored.

What’s your favourite thing to do away from work?

I garden to get away from the electronics that consume so much of my life. And being with my seven (soon to be eight) grandchildren is very simply the best thing ever.

What achievement outside of work makes you most proud?

My husband John and I are Court Appointed Special Advocates for abused and neglected children. There is no better feeling than knowing you helped to get those children to a safe place. We love spending time with them  — we’ve done this for the last five years. It feels like God’s work.  It is our way of “going to church.”

Did you choose your career or did it choose you?

While in college at Tufts University, I read a quote one day that said “The law is a sword for the just and a shield for the oppressed.”  In that single moment, I knew I had found the profession I wanted to enter.

Who was your mentor and what made him or her so influential?

My dad, without question. If I played nurse as a little girl, he wanted to know why I wasn’t the doctor.  When I got into all kinds of trouble as an antiwar activist in high school, he was beside me the whole time. By the way, he disagreed with my point of view, but he held a strong belief in the Constitution. We debated endlessly over many years — he sharpened my mind and lightened our debates with humor. He once told me that anyone who could bullshit as well as me had to go to law school. He was a beloved leader in our town who overcame a lot of prejudice — helping African Americans become Masons and aiding the Cuban refugees who came to our town. I was so proud to be his daughter. When he came to my law school graduation, he kept smiling and saying over and over  “My daughter the lawyer.” Happy memories. 

What is the most vivid moment or experience in  your career?

A very big-name technology company sued a small IT company for selling counterfeit copies of their software. The suit was for more than $4 million dollars. I knew the defendants personally and knew they believed that they had properly licensed copies of the software – they had documentation too, but of course it was fraudulent. The company was owned by a family of Vietnamese “boat people” — they knew technology but weren’t very sophisticated and didn’t recognize danger signs. The suit would have destroyed everything they had built for their family. They were heartsick and scared. I took the case pro bono but was mystified as to how I could help. Even innocent copyright infringement comes with huge penalties.

One day, I had a thought. I wrote a newspaper story about the family, their harrowing escape from Vietnam and their absolute devotion to the American Dream and raising a family here. It concluded by talking about how a large technology was destroying their lives when any reasonable inquiry would have proved that they were duped by software counterfeiters, but that the company simply didn’t care. I underscored the utter indifference of the company in its talks with me. It was a pretty compelling story. I sent it to counsel for the company and told them I was prepared to send the story to the newspapers if it didn’t drop the suit. The company agreed to settle for a pittance (I think the bean counters needed a “win” no matter how small), easily absorbed by the family. I think that might be the oddest path to a good outcome I ever had — but it felt wonderful — and my clients continued to thrive in America. Remember that quote above about “a shield for the oppressed?” I did feel like a shield when that case ended — and it felt good.

Of the law-related projects or initiatives you’ve worked on in the past year or so, what has you the most excited or shows the most promise?

I am most excited about seeing law firms begin to embrace cybersecurity. The demand for CLEs on this subject has skyrocketed, as have the requests from law firms wanting to implement encryption (which used to be hard, but is so easy a lawyer can do it today — no math required!).  I have worked on this issue with the ABA Cybersecurity Legal Task Force and the Virginia State Bar’s Special Committee on the Future of Law. As John and I lecture about information security, we are peppered with questions from the audience — a very good thing. With our colleague Dave Ries, we wrote Encryption Made Simple for Lawyers, published by the ABA in March 2015.

Cybersecurity is an ever-changing field, challenging even for experts to keep up with.  I get so jazzed talking about it that I had one CLE attendee say that I was making him passionate — and then he turned beet red as he realized his comment could be misconstrued. I reassured him that I had understood what he meant.  Getting lawyers to care about protecting their data — that’s a mission that revs me up. Data breaches energize me. I want to know everything about how they happened and how they could have been prevented. Glad I married a man who is equally infatuated with the subject — another man might think me a very poor dinner conversationalist!

What is the most engaging law-related thing you’re doing right now?

This is my year as President of the Fairfax Law Foundation – along with many other Foundation lawyers, I am trying to stabilize the financial future of the Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of the Fairfax Bar Association. The greatest percentage of our monies goes toward sustaining a very robust Pro Bono program and a good chunk goes toward law-related education for students. We began a Fellows program last year and it is my task to get lawyers and law firms to make a ten-year financial commitment to the Foundation at varying levels.

I have spent months taking people to lunch or buying them a glass of wine after work, making “the ask” — I am happy to say that we are approaching 50 Fellows — and I can count 12 more upcoming meetings with lawyers on my calendar. It’s hard work, but raising money for good causes seems to be one of my gifts, so I remain heavily engaged in ensuring the future of Pro Bono and law-related education in Fairfax County. It’s not “saving the world,” but in a place where 99 percent of tenants facing eviction have no lawyer to assist them (and we all know how many other pressing legal needs there are for the poor), it’s rewarding to be a part of making sure my corner of the world has greater access to justice through the Pro Bono program.

Get to know the rest of the Fellows by visiting the Recent Inductees page and by browsing the Fellows Directory.

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