Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP | 20th Anniversary 2004 - 2024
Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP | 20th Anniversary 2004 - 2024

Partner Reflection: Qiaojing Ella Zheng

By Qiaojing Ella Zheng, Managing Partner of the Palo Alto and San Francisco Offices | March 2024

Committed to representing the employment and civil rights of the Silicon Valley workforce, we have taken on cases against the most powerful corporations in the world, and advocated for workers in the tech industry and those in financial services, legal, pharmaceutical, education, and healthcare services. – Qiaojing Ella Zheng

I joined Sanford Heisler Sharp in the end of 2014, when the firm was 10 years old with only 34 employees. I was promoted to Senior Counsel in 2018 and elevated to be a partner in 2020. In 2022, I became the Managing Partner of Palo Alto and the San Francisco offices.

When I first joined the firm, I was apprehensive about whether my unique background and skillset would allow me to succeed. My journey to becoming a civil rights and public interest litigator has been different from that of most attorneys. I obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree from a prestigious university in China and later pursued a one-year Master of Laws program in the United States. After passing the bar exams in New York and California and working on cross-border US/China matters at a boutique firm in San Diego for 2 years, I joined Sanford Heisler Sharp. At that time, the firm needed someone with my background and language skills to represent a class of low-wage immigrant workers against a technology company in Silicon Valley. The case, which was settled on the eve of trial, left a lasting impact on me. I came to the realization that my legal education in China and the States can be of great value to workers of color who are historically underrepresented in this country. This realization has been a driving force in my commitment to civil rights and public interest litigation.

This realization not only instilled confidence but also empowered me to approach my legal practice with creativity, shaping a unique path within the firm. Soon after joining the firm, I quickly observed a scarcity of bilingual employment lawyers to meet the substantial demand for legal representation in employment law, even within the ethnically diverse landscape of Silicon Valley. Aiming to be the voice for workers of color and those from underrepresented communities, I drafted a plan and pioneered a novel practice, leveraging my unique background, language skills, and connections. I started collaborating with individuals and community organizations to identify civil rights and social justice issues affecting Asian American communities. By tailoring legal strategies to address these challenges, I became a voice for those who often lacked representation. I frequently conducted educational presentations customized to the specific needs of various worker groups. I have provided workshops for low-wage workers on wage and hour law fundamentals, and delivered seminar presentations to professionals on discrimination and retaliation issues.

To broaden the reach of information, I authored bilingual articles addressing matters pertinent to minority workers and provided expert commentaries on emerging legal issues to both local and international media outlets. Through these efforts, my practice has not only filled a crucial gap in the legal landscape but has also actively contributed to raising awareness and promoting social justice within diverse communities. In the summer of 2019, I was invited by Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center as the first U.S. litigator to present at its summer workshop series in China, a dialogue among prominent scholars, practitioners, judges, and law enforcement to facilitate the legal reform on anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity laws led by the Supreme People’s Court of China.

My business initiatives and thought leadership have yielded remarkable success. Within 4 years, I built a brand for myself and the Firm in the Asian American community nationwide, establishing myself as the go-to plaintiff-side litigator for AAPI members. In 2019, Sanford Heisler Sharp officially launched the Asian American Litigation and Finance Practice Group, marking the first national civil rights and public interest litigation firm with a dedicated practice group focused on the AAPI community. That was a defining moment of my legal career. Since its inception, the Asian American Litigation and Finance practice group has undertaken hundreds of matters and secured tens of millions of dollars in recovery for thousands of AAPI individuals and groups. Dozens of lawyers and legal professionals across the firm’s offices work closely with me to provide legal services to the Asian community at large through this one-of-its-kind practice. My innovative approach to practicing law has allowed me to fill a gap in the legal market and provide much-needed representation for workers from AAPI communities.

Throughout my tenure with the firm, I have led and participated in cases involving virtually every practice group in the Firm and have led and participated in many of our highest-profile cases. Notably, I spearheaded an arbitration representing a startup co-founder in his breach of contract and fraud claims, which yielded an $8.36 million arbitration award. I co-led a PAGA case against a national psychiatric hospital and secured a groundbreaking $2.85 million settlement with robust programmatic relief designed to improve the working conditions for frontline nurses and mental health workers. I worked on a gender discrimination class action against QualComm, which settled for $19.5 million with an additional $4 million for programmatic relief. I have also served as class counsel in wage and hour matters and lead counsel in numerous pre-suit matters on behalf of executives and professionals throughout the United States, and represented many whistleblowers in qui tam and fraud matters being co-investigated and co-prosecuted with the Department of Justice, the Securities Exchange Commission and other regulatory authorities.

My unique qualifications, encompassing a deep understanding of both the Chinese and American legal systems, fluency in English and Mandarin, and a nuanced appreciation of cultural norms, make me an effective leader of litigation teams dedicated to pursuing justice for Asian and other racially/ethnically diverse plaintiffs in employment discrimination, retaliation, and whistleblower matters. Many of my clients told me that they would not have been able to achieve justice and hold their employers accountable if they did not have someone like me fighting for them.

In 2022, the firm opened an office in Palo Alto, becoming the first national plaintiff-side law firm in Silicon Valley with a focus on civil rights, social justice and employment litigation. Committed to representing the employment and civil rights of the Silicon Valley workforce, we have taken on cases against the most powerful corporations in the world, and advocated for workers in the tech industry and those in financial services, legal, pharmaceutical, education, and healthcare services. In less than two years, we have become a go-to litigation firm for workers and professionals in Silicon Valley.

What sets Sanford Heisler Sharp apart is its unwavering commitment to people. The firm stands out as an exceptional workplace where a collective passion and dedication to advancing civil rights and social justice drive every individual. The firm has successfully assembled a diverse legal team that delivers top-notch representation to workers and whistleblowers, embodying its mission to use the law as a force for positive change in the world. As a mentor to many attorneys and staff from diverse backgrounds, I have had the privilege of contributing to the growth and development of a dynamic legal community. Through my involvement with the firm’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, I’ve facilitated crucial conversations on DEI, fostering an environment that values and celebrates differences. I also take immense pride in managing the Palo Alto Office where the majority of its workforce comprises women of color.

I am tremendously grateful for my colleagues who have consistently embraced and supported me, shaping me into the lawyer I aspired to become. Because of their camaraderie and friendship, I am always able to ensure that my clients receive the best possible representation and their best interests safeguarded.

Being a civil rights advocate and social justice litigator is often times demanding and challenging work, however, working with brilliant, dedicated and supportive colleagues makes the journey significantly more manageable. Each moment becomes meaningful as we work together to achieve our shared goals of advocating for deserving clients and making the world better. I eagerly look forward to many more years of collaboration and impact with the firm.

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