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October 01, 2008

October 2008: Michael J. Sharley, Esq.

Criminal defense lawyer able to relate with clients through his disability and unique take on poverty.

Mark Twain once said “never let schooling interfere with your education.” Books and classroom instruction can only take a lawyer so far. Not that a formal education is useless, but sometimes personal factors can help lawyers make their practice more efficient and successful. For fifteen years, Michael J. Sharley, Esq.,  a solo practitioner with cerebral palsy, has taken advantage of his personal connections and his disability in running his own firm.

Michael, a graduate of West Virginia University College of Law, has never left Morgantown, WV. He handles criminal cases in state and federal court—ranging from simple battery to first degree murder—as well as cases involving juveniles, disability discrimination, and disability access. As a solo practitioner, Michael accommodates himself at work, while receiving funding from the West Virginia Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to help pay a portion of his assistant’s salary.

Many of Mr. Sharley’s clients are court-appointed, and therefore may be indigent. Michael, however, sees several common factors between being poor and having a disability that enable him to relate to his clients. First, Michael sees poverty as a type of disability in that sometimes there is a stigma attached to both. “If someone knows, for example, that you are homeless or that you have a learning disability, they tend to treat you differently, not that this is an ideal situation, but it is a common reaction when people find out.” Michael observes that in trying these cases, he has “to be sure to overcome this perception of being poverty-stricken or having a disability. Yet, it is in this struggle that I can relate to my clients and my clients can relate to me because I am a lawyer from depressed circumstances.”

Michael tells the story of his first court-appointed client: “At first, he did not want me as his lawyer. His initial perception was that because I was a lawyer, I was not despondent and depressed; but after a short time, he found I could relate because of how I had to handle my disability. Even though I lost that case, he was happy with my services and we are very good friends now.”

Michael also stresses the importance of relating to his colleagues in order to better his business. “Many law students with disabilities focus on academics because they feel they need to prove themselves in spite of their disability,” Sharley noted, “but the law is also being able to work matters out on an amicable level—which is easier if you have a working relationship with your coworkers and fellow lawyers.” Michael made many connections in law school that he values today as a practitioner. A former classmate, who he socializes with frequently, represents the government when Michael is trying to work out pleas for his clients. Michael says that people like his friend “don’t see me as a lawyer with a disability. They see me as a classmate from law school and an associate.”

Finally, if Michael looks familiar to you, it may be that you saw him at the Democratic Presidential CNN-YouTube Debates this past spring. His video-question was chosen from thousands of submissions and answered by several of the candidates (see:

The ABA is a non-partisan, voluntary membership organization. Neither the ABA nor the Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law has a political action committee, makes political contributions, or endorses candidates for office.