Scientific inquiry

Sharon M. Woods, of Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, applies scientific thinking to her business litigation practice

Published in 2011 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine

By Ross Pfund on September 9, 2011


Q: We don’t see a lot of biology majors who become lawyers. How did you end up taking that particular path?

A: Actually, my major is in biology and I also have a teaching minor in mathematics [from the University of Detroit]. People that have gone through in science seem to gravitate to the law just because of the organization of thought that’s required in the science curriculum. You’ll find that a lot of engineers also gravitate to the law after they finish an engineering degree. It seems like a natural trend.


Q: Was it an easy transition for you?

A: For me, a good thing about law school was that you don’t have labs! When you go through science, you take a three-hour course but then you have six hours of lab in addition.


Q: What was it that first got you interested in the law?

A: I think, for so many people of my era, when Perry Mason was on television, watching him whet your appetite for it.


Q: We do hear that from a lot of lawyers.

A: Although I’m still waiting for the witness to jump up in the witness box and yell, “I lied!” That hasn’t happened yet. [Laughs] Used to happen regularly on his show!


Q: You graduated from law school in 1971. How was that experience?

A: My husband had graduated with an engineering degree, and we both went through law school at the same time at U of D. There were very few women, as you would expect, in the class. There were probably four. It was much more formal than it is today. The fellows wore suits and ties and starched white shirts. The girls wore suits and people used to have to stand to answer questions.


Q: What was it like being one of just a few women in the class?

A: I didn’t notice any difference. I went through undergrad, as you know, in science and math. In those two majors, most of the classes had very few women in them as well.


Q: Business litigation seems to encompass a wide variety of activities. Is there one thing that you enjoy above the others?

A: I do a lot of bet-the-company, high-visibility litigation, where there’s hundreds of thousands of documents that are involved in the dispute. They have to be gathered, analyzed, put into some kind of cogent story. That’s the thing I concentrate on the most now.

But those types of cases can involve all different kinds of subject matters. I’ve been involved with nuclear power plant construction, regular power plant construction, franchising disputes, class action disputes involving consumer issues and securities.


Q: What is it that draws you to bet-the-company work?

A: I like the variety, and I’ve had some success in it. My background in science and math, which requires a certain amount of logic and organization to understand it, probably carries over into liking the complexities of a large case, where you need a large cast of professionals working on the various aspects, and then you need to pull it all together.


Q: Is it intimidating to sit down at the start of a case and see all the documents you have to go through and all the facts you have to organize?

A: Early on, of course, before we had computerization, it was a little more intimidating than it is now. You’d walk into a storage room that looked like a football field full of banker boxes. You thought, “Hmm, I wonder which aisle I’ll start in?”


Q: Do you enjoy being in the courtroom?

A: I love it. The competition is part of it. Trying to make something that is complicated and multifaceted understandable to the jury or the judge or whoever the finder-of-fact is. You either love it or you shy away from it. I don’t think there’s any in-between.


Q: How do you prepare?

A: Every night and day. Just a lot of it—every waking moment. The goal is to be aware of every aspect of the case, anticipate any surprises that may come up and to be just as prepared as you absolutely can be—because in every trial there’s always twists and turns. I’ve been blessed with good partners and fine staff and that helps a lot.


Q: Is your husband still a lawyer?

A: He is. He primarily practices environmental law.


Q: Do the two of you talk shop at home, or do you leave that in the office?

A: From time to time, we have talked about legal principles or things like that. But like most husbands and wives, you also talk about the leaky washing machine or who’s going to plant the flowers this year!

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