Best-Laid Plans

How Sharlei Hsu went from would-be doctor with a fear of public speaking to a top litigator

Published in 2023 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Rommelmann on July 20, 2023

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Much of Sharlei Hsu’s professional life hasn’t gone as planned. And for that, she’s grateful.

“I feel like a lot of things in life are a combination of luck and being prepared for when you get lucky, and then running with it,” says the Portland-based insurance and commercial litigator.

Born in Shanghai and raised in Salt Lake City to parents working in the sciences, it was understood that Hsu would go into medicine. But upon becoming a naturalized citizen in high school, she decided to change the spelling of her name.

“It was X-I-A-O-L-E-I,” she says. That X threw everybody in the States; few knew how to pronounce it. “I just phonetically changed it to S-H-A-R. There’s no R sound in Chinese, so it’s an Americanized version of my name. I think of it as sweet-and-sour chicken. There’s no such dish in traditional Chinese food, but it’s still considered ‘Chinese,’ right?”

That name change changed the course of her life. It required a court hearing, which was Hsu’s first exposure to the judicial system. “I just remember sitting in the hallway, thinking, ‘OK. So doctors treat humans and their bodies for things that aren’t working for them. And on the flip side, the law is how society treats its problems.’”

Even then, the plan was to become any kind of lawyer except a litigator. And then she graduated from the University of Oregon School of Law in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown.

“The job market was crap, no one was getting jobs,” says Hsu. “I basically did associate work on a contract basis for solo practitioners for like 20 bucks an hour. And most of those were litigation projects.”

Upon getting hired as a full time associate at a downtown law firm, she was assigned to a practice group specializing in an area Hsu knew nothing about: construction defects. She viewed this as a plus: an opportunity to learn something.

“I view this whole idea of litigation as problem solving through procedure,” says Hsu, who joined Betts Patterson & Mines in 2018. She likens the litigation process to deciphering how systems work from the inside out then addressing points of concern.

“I ended up falling into a bunch of piping cases, and I knew nothing about piping,” says Hsu. Talking with piping experts, she would tell them, “‘You guys are incredibly smart. … Now how do I take what you’re telling me and bring it down to a layperson’s story?’”

Systemic problems, she adds, require organic fixes. “What do you know about the science and how do you put those things together so that it actually works for humans? Because that’s the whole point, right?”


Passing the Barre

Sharlei Hsu practiced yoga for years before she tried a barre workout: combining aspects of ballet—which Hsu studied as a child—with stretching and strength exercises. She took to it so much that one day the owner of the studio approached her about becoming a certified instructor.

Hsu viewed the proposal as both terrifying and an opportunity. “I have a terrible fear of public speaking,” Hsu confessed to the owner, which isn’t a statement you often hear from a litigator. But when Hsu first started practicing, “Even if it was something trivial like saying I needed an extension at ex parte … just the act of getting up and speaking publicly really made me anxious.”

A colleague confided in Hsu that she, too, had suffered public-speaking anxiety; she beat it by working as a trial attorney in the Oregon Attorney General’s office. “So I thought, ‘OK, if there’s something I need to get better at, then I need to just dive headfirst into it,’” Hsu says. Barre instruction was part of that process. Despite “a crazy schedule”—she and her husband are parents of two young children—she regularly teaches barre classes in the early morning one day a week.

Teaching barre not only gave her confidence but, she says, “an understanding of how presentation works and how to connect with people—a really good experience to have as a litigator.”

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