By Lanier Laney
If Beaufort had a upcountry “sister city,” it would be Aiken. The towns are similar in size and both have beautiful historic homes. There are a surprisingly number of former Aiken residents in Beaufort, Judge Mary Sharp being one of them.
Says Mary, “Aiken was a great place to grow up, and is the kind of place where you can go back, and feel like you never left. And, like Beaufort, it’s beautiful in the spring and fall.”
Mary grew up there because her father was a nuclear engineer at the nearby Savannah River Plant and her mother taught English at Aiken High School. Both she and her sister had their mother as a teacher in the 10th grade, which Mary says, “It may sound bad, but it was probably harder for her than for either of us.” Her parents retired to a house on Lady’s Island in 1996 which is how Mary found Beaufort.
“I moved, I thought temporarily, to Beaufort with my parents after taking the bar, and planned to look for a job from Beaufort. While driving through the Penn Center one afternoon, I noticed the Neighborhood Legal Assistance Program (NLAP) offices, which was at Penn at the time, and called that afternoon to find out whether they had any need for some free help. Martha Dicus, the executive director, called me back that afternoon, and told me, sight and resume unseen, that she would love to have me, and within the week I was working there full time, and she had introduced me to literally every lawyer and judge in Beaufort. She also introduced me to Mitch Griffith and Nancy Sadler, and persuaded them they needed to hire an associate, which they reluctantly did,” said Mary with a smile. “Fortunately, things worked out and now 18 years later we have grown from a three lawyer, three staff member firm to an eight lawyer, ten staff member firm,” she added.
Not only is Mary a partner now at Griffith, Sadler & Sharp, she’s also been a municipal judge for the City of Beaufort since 2000 and shares that job with Judge Ned Tupper.
“Ned and I split the duties between us. He typically does morning bond hearings, and I do the afternoon. He typically does Monday and Thursday afternoon bench trials, and I handle the jury selection and jury trials, which we have about once a month. In South Carolina, people charged with any misdemeanor including speeding tickets, can get a trial by jury, rather than by judge, at the outset of their case, which is not typical. But we treat those trials just as seriously as a larger court would a bigger crime, because we understand how important they are to the people who are charged. And our City of Beaufort residents, who sit on the juries, treat them seriously too,” described Mary. Of serving with Ned Tupper, who has a reputation for his courtroom wit and sense of humor, she said, “Ned is definitely funnier than I am. But recently someone approached us who had been in front of both of us, and said that while Ned was ‘funnier,’ I was ‘fairer,’ and we both took it as a complement.”
Mary went to N.C. State where she developed a great love of ACC basketball. Then she got her law degree from Wake Forest. She says, “My father thought I should be an engineer, and I think still wishes I had been. As the only lawyer in the family, I have spent a lot of time over the years giving free help to friends and family, which I actually don’t really mind, but I mentioned that a family member had asked my advice on a problem one time to my Dad, and he said ‘I told you you should have been an engineer. Nobody has ever asked me for free nuclear engineering advice.’ ”
Mary is a civil trial lawyer, and handles cases for individuals, businesses and insurance companies in state and federal court. That’s civil law, as opposed to criminal law, and civil litigation involves really any kind of dispute people have, usually over money. Working in a smaller firm, in a smaller town, has allowed Mary the leeway to handle a wide variety of cases including premises liability, automobile accidents, contract disputes, real estate litigation, homeowners association litigation, environmental litigation and construction litigation. She’s tried over 40 jury trials and recently has started serving as a third-party mediator to help parties resolve their disputes before a trial is necessary.
Says Mary, “One thing I like about being a lawyer is that the days are never the same, and you never know exactly what might happen when you walk in the door in the morning. I guess that could be a bad thing, but generally it’s good.”
She also feels it’s better to practice law in a small town than a large city, saying, “Beaufort is a great place to practice law. The lawyers in this town are a collegial group all in all, and most can argue against you in court one day, and invite you to dinner that night. It’s a nice way to live.”
Mary appreciates that she can be in a formal federal courtroom in Charleston or Greenville one day and in a Magistrate’s Court courtroom in a convenience store in a small town in South Carolina the next. One of the first jury trials she ever had was at the Woods Store on Highway 17. Says Mary, “We had a jury of six people in Magistrate Woods’ small office which was off to the left of the store, and the lawyers had to stand directly over the jurors to argue. There was not much room. I objected to a question the other lawyer asked, and the judge said, ‘All right, meet me in tackle,’ where we argued the objection.”
Mary’s work philosophy is simple: “I work hard, and try to figure out at the outset of a case what it is the client wants in the end, and try to get them there as efficiently and effectively as possible. I work with other like-minded attorneys, which is why our firm has been successful.”
She is passionate about a number of things, including the equality and empowerment of women, and has been involved in advocacy on those issues, on the national and state levels, through the legal profession. In 2010, at the American Bar Association (ABA) Meeting in San Francisco, she was elected President of the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations, and she’s currently its Immediate Past President. She is a past liaison to the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession, which was first chaired by Hillary Clinton. She served on the Board of South Carolina Women Lawyers Association from 1997 to 2005, and in 2003, served as its president. She is currently a South Carolina Liaison to the ABA Section of Litigation Woman Advocate Committee.
In 2009, Mary was honored as one of 10 South Carolina “Leaders in the Law,” by South Carolina Lawyers Weekly, in their inaugural year of presenting those awards. She was also just named a 2012 South Carolina Super Lawyer. The annual selections for Super Lawyer are made using a rigorous multi-phased process that includes a statewide survey of lawyers, and an independent research evaluation of each nominee’s background and experience. The designation is given to those who have attained a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. Only five percent of the lawyers in S.C. are selected for inclusion in South Carolina Super Lawyers.
Mary is also active in the community, and currently serves on the boards of Lowcountry Legal Volunteers, the Historic Beaufort Foundation, The Surgery Center of Beaufort, and Broad River Healthcare, and has served as a member of the Beaufort Memorial Hospital Institutional Review Board. She also served as President of the Board of the Friends of Caroline Hospice, from 2004-2007; as President of the Board of Low County Legal Aid, Inc., from 2009-2010; and was on the board of the Child Abuse Prevention Association from 1995-2001.
She says, “I really love living in Beaufort because of the people, and the good friends and family I have here, and the people I practice law with. That’s what makes it home to me.” And Beaufort is lucky that Mary has chosen it to be her home.