Sharon L. McCarthy
White Collar Defense and Federal Prosecution
Sharon L. McCarthy
Sharon L. McCarthy is Partner at Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP where she represents individuals and corporations in white collar criminal matters and tax controversies.
Sharon L. McCarthy is Partner at Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP where she represents individuals and corporations in white collar criminal matters and tax controversies. She has previously worked for both the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General’s Office. While at the United States Attorney’s Office, she served as Chief of the Violent Crimes Unit and Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division and was honored twice with the Director’s Award for Superior Performance as an Assistant United States Attorney. Early in her career, Ms. McCarthy worked as an Associate at Lankler Siffert & Wohl, LLP after spending two years as a law clerk to the Honorable John F. Keenan of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She is a graduate of Colgate University and Fordham Law School.
Ms. McCarthy has been invited to speak about criminal law and government ethics issues at engagements around the country, including “The Use of Social Media in Criminal Trials: Ethical & Practical Considerations,” “Top Criminal Tax Practice Tips and Representation Strategies,” and “Mind Games: Challenging Intent, Winning the Case.”
Ms. McCarthy is a member of a number of professional associations in New York and is currently serving as Chair of the NYCBA’s Criminal Law Committee.
How did you decide to pursue a career in criminal law?
When I graduated from college, I hadn’t yet decided what I wanted to do with my life, so I moved to Arlington, Virginia, which is just outside of Washington, D.C., to stay with a friend while I figured things out. I sent out a bunch of resumes and was lucky to secure a position as a paralegal at Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, which just so happened to be one of the best white collar criminal defense boutiques in the country. The lawyers at Miller, Cassidy had, among other things, represented Richard Nixon, and they were handling some of the most interesting First Amendment issues at the time. Although my work as a paralegal was tedious – it essentially consisted of Bates stamping and filing documents in an environmental litigation matter – I seized the opportunity to listen to the attorneys, many of whom had clerked for Justices of the Supreme Court, discuss their work. I became interested in the issues and the legal process, and, with the encouragement of the attorneys at Miller, Cassidy, I decided to go to law school.
How have your career experiences built on one another and influenced your transitions?
Clerking for Judge Keenan laid an excellent foundation after law school not only for me to learn from a great judge but also to observe very talented courtroom lawyers in action. Then, when I moved to Lankler Siffert & Wohl, I gained tremendous practical experience from excellent attorneys, including in the courtroom when I had the opportunity to second-chair a federal criminal trial in which our client was acquitted. With the support of the partners at Lankler Siffert & Wohl, I applied to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and was incredibly fortunate to be hired by then United States Attorney Mary Jo White.
During my time at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I served as lead counsel and supervisor on many federal criminal trials and appeals. After 12 years in the office, I realized that I had accomplished everything I had hoped to while there and that it was time for someone new to take my place as Chief of the Violent Crimes Unit. From the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I moved to my current firm, Kostelanetz & Fink, where I practice in the area of white collar criminal defense. In each of my jobs, I have found tremendous professional fulfillment.
What was the biggest hurdle you faced when switching from prosecution to defense?
The biggest hurdle I faced when changing from a government position to private practice was the loss of influence and agency support. When someone receives a call from a government prosecutor, that call tends to be given significantly more weight than it does from a private defense attorney. In addition, of course, federal prosecutors have subpoena power and their clients are major agencies – FBI, DEA, and the NYPD, to name a few. When I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office and no longer had those tools or that agency support, I felt a bit powerless, so it took a while for me to adjust and figure out new and creative ways to find solutions to problems and gather information useful to my clients’ defense.
Did you have any mentors who helped you shape your career?
I have been privileged to know Judge Keenan since 1988, and he has provided me with invaluable advice and guidance at every stage of my career. As his law clerk, I was able to witness first-hand the high level of advocacy in the Southern District of New York, while listening to Judge Keenan’s feedback based upon his many years as a highly respected trial lawyer under Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan. Beyond all else, Judge Keenan has served as a model of professionalism and humanity to me. From the courthouse custodian to the Chief Judge, Judge Keenan is equally kind and generous with his time, and I do my best to try to channel his teachings in my daily dealings with people.
What is your advice to attorneys looking to transition between prosecution and defense?
For those moving from defense to prosecution, I would say that they have to really want to serve in that position, which is very different from being a defense attorney. In order to be a prosecutor, you have to be comfortable enforcing the laws on the books as they stand, but you also have to have the judgment to know when a case should and should not be prosecuted.
For those moving from prosecution to defense, there are a lot of different paths available – private, corporate, not-for-profit -- so it is important to choose a path that will bring fulfillment. For me, it has always been important to wake up every morning and look forward to going to work. That can’t happen if a person is uncomfortable with the nature of one’s job.
How has your work at the City Bar impacted your career?
Serving as Chair of the Criminal Law Committee has significantly broadened my outlook on certain legal issues, particularly those involving state criminal matters. Hearing different perspectives from all areas of criminal practice, from legal aid attorneys to state prosecutors, has been eye-opening, particularly since my practice has been very federally focused. As Chair, I’ve been involved in incredibly respectful debates on a variety of criminal justice issues, and I’ve learned a lot from members of the Committee. It has definitely been an enriching experience, both professionally and personally.
Interview conducted by Nicole Paton, New York Law School ‘17 and Member of the Criminal Law Committee, April 2015.