From left, David Sanford, Jeremy Heisler, and Kevin Sharp of Sanford Heisler Sharp

Plaintiffs-side employment and civil rights firm Sanford Heisler on Monday trumpeted the arrival of former federal Judge Kevin Sharp, who will join the firm as a name partner and open its fifth office, in Nashville, Tennessee.

The announcement comes as the firm—now called Sanford Heisler Sharp—is trading blows with Chadbourne & Parke in a $100 million lawsuit accusing Chadbourne of short-changing women partners on pay and leadership opportunities. Sanford Heisler chairman David Sanford said in a statement on Monday that he expects Sharp to play a critical role in the case.

“Kevin brings a unique perspective as a practitioner and judge, along with a sensitivity to social justice,” Sanford said. “Judge Sharp will be invaluable as counsel in our gender discrimination suit against Chadbourne & Parke. With his keen awareness of the legal marketplace in the South, he will help enormously in our fight for gender equity in the legal profession.”

Sharp, 54, served from 2014 to 2017 as chief U.S. district judge for the Middle District of Tennessee. He’s been on the bench since 2011, after his 2010 nomination by former President Barack Obama. At Sanford Heisler, he’ll return to his private practice roots—before becoming a judge, Sharp worked at several firms in Nashville, representing individuals and businesses in employment and qui tam suits.

The judge had announced in January that he would step down from the federal bench in April, and that he intended to join Sanford Heisler once his resignation took effect. He’ll open a new office in Nashville for the firm, adding to its outposts in New York, Washington, San Francisco and San Diego.

His decision to leave the bench made headlines in Tennessee, in part because Sharp’s vacancy would give President Donald Trump an opening to reshape Nashville’s federal court. More recently, Sharp gave a detailed interview with The Tennessean in which he decried mandatory sentencing in criminal cases.

Speaking with The Am Law Daily on Monday, Sharp said his decision to leave the bench stemmed primarily from his excitement at the chance of joining Sanford Heisler. He and David Sanford have long been friends, he said, after working on and trying a race discrimination case together in the early 2000s against Whirlpool Corp.

“It was always in my mind, if I leave the bench, it would only be for these guys,” said Sharp.

Sharp said he wanted to give his fellow judges ample notice and give Tennessee’s senators and the new administration in the White House a chance to prepare for his departure. But he said he also wanted to jump back into practicing while he still had several years left in his career, adding that he believes it’s a crucial time to be pursuing civil rights cases.

“I liked being a judge, but I loved being a lawyer,” said Sharp. “If ever there was an opportunity to come back in while I still have the enthusiasm to be a lawyer, this was the time and place to do it.”

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