In 1993, Cheryl A. Sharp ’93 followed through on her longstanding plan to do advocacy work when she signed on as a law clerk with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO), a position she pursued at the urging of former Law School Professor John C. Britain. Today, some two decades later, Sharp is a human rights attorney in CHRO’s Legal Division, where she represents the State of Connecticut in the prosecution of a wide range of employment, housing, public accommodation and credit transaction discrimination complaints before CHRO’s Office of Public Hearings and in state and federal court. “While I litigate all types of cases for the agency, I see myself as a specialist of sorts in school bullying cases and racial profiling,” says Sharp, a Hartford native who holds an undergraduate degree in history and theater from Wesleyan and a M.S. in human resources from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
In addition to her work as a litigator, Sharp – who was featured in the Connecticut Law Review’s 2011 “Dozen Who Made a Difference” issue – heads up CHRO’s comprehensive education and outreach program, through which staff members go out into the community to enhance awareness of civil and human rights associated with Connecticut’s 26 protected classes. She also trains CHRO investigators and state employees on discrimination laws and the administrative process, and serves as a trainer for CHRO’s Business Institute, a program that provides free training to businesses and nonprofits on Connecticut’s discrimination laws. “Our outreach programs are designed for both complainants and respondents,” emphasizes Sharp, the CHRO’s representative on the Connecticut Safe School Coalition and the state’s Racial Profiling Working Group. “I don’t like to have ‘gotcha’ moments for employers who are discriminating as a result of not knowing the law.”
As though Sharp doesn’t have enough to do, she also serves as a supervisor in CHRO’s externship program, through which law students earn course credit for working at the agency during the academic year. “From the very beginning of the program we determined that we wanted our externs to be student practitioners, so that when they go for their first job they actually know how to practice law,” explains Sharp. “As a result, we expose them to a myriad of experiences. If you are an extern here you are apt to end up doing a request for production, a witness and exhibit list, interviewing witnesses, and conducting arguments in the appellate court and at public hearings. Our externs get great training because they are assigned to work one-on-one with a supervising attorney who has years and years of experience – and wants to share that experience. We set up the program so that every single thing our attorneys can do, the externs can do as well. We are always focusing on how can we expose the students to experiences that will make them civil rights oriented – regardless of where they may practice someday.”
According to Sharp, CHRO typically has two or three UConn Law students serving as externs each semester, an opportunity they learn about through the efforts of Assistant Clinical Professor Jennifer Mailly, who administers the Law School’s externship program; CHRO outreach initiatives; and at various events, including receptions organized by UConn Law’s Career Planning Center, at which Sharp regularly represents the agency. “We have gotten really good students from UConn Law, which is why we have maintained such a strong relationship over the years,” says Sharp. “We are giving them real work – and they are delivering.”
Sharp also emphasizes that the benefits of the externship program to CHRO complement the benefits derived by the externs. “UConn Law externs are leading mediations on a regular basis…and they have settled cases like you wouldn’t believe,” she says. “Also, because our mission is to eliminate discrimination, any student we can train to be more civil rights conscious will benefit the state, because so many UConn students stay in Connecticut to practice, whether in the area of public interest law or at a firm. If they understand Connecticut’s discrimination laws, they are going to be better attorneys for their clients, regardless of who those clients might be… Externs also tend to have fresh ideas and new thoughts about things that excite us. For example, one of our recent UConn Law externs, Spencer Hill ’15, set up a database for our housing testing program that we never would have been able to do by ourselves. It’s a collaborative process and a beautiful thing because it keeps us on our toes. Every crop of externs that comes into the agency brings new energy to the office.”
Sharp continues. “I think that it is very important for my fellow graduates to participate in the externship program as a way of giving back to the Law School and also because the program is great for their firms and businesses. By taking on a UConn Law extern, you get the benefit of having a bright, astute, eager student of the law on your [legal] team. And, some day, they may even play a role in bringing future clients into the firm.”