As the oldest of 12 children growing up in a family that struggled financially, Sharita Whitaker knew from an early age that education would lead the way out of poverty.
She was the first in her extended family to attend college, and had her first child while earning her degree. Still, she graduated summa cum laude from N.C. State University, and magna cum laude from N.C. Central University’s law school.
Now 29, she’s a commercial real estate attorney at Smith Anderson, one of the state’s largest firms, where she specializes in commercial real estate.
With her own career established, Whitaker has also devoted herself to helping others, particularly would-be attorneys from backgrounds that might not traditionally lead to successful law careers.
Creating a diverse workforce is an ongoing struggle recognized by her profession. In 2010, 88 percent of U.S. attorneys were white and non-Hispanic, according to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association.
Whitaker serves as chair of the N.C. State Bar Association’s Minorities in the Profession program, which is focused on making the legal profession more diverse, and co-chaired a program to aid law school students’ transition into successful careers.
Her colleagues say Whitaker has become an important role model for young attorneys, both through her community work and her personal example.
“Law students and attorneys from all walks of life know and respect Sharita,” says Margaret Rosenfeld, partner at Smith Anderson. “What she has accomplished at her age is a true source of inspiration ... and I believe we have only seen the beginning of the impact she will make on the legal community.”
Getting out of Walnut Terrace
Whitaker was born in Philadelphia, though her mother was originally from North Carolina. When her parents divorced, the family moved back south, first living in Kenansville and Goldsboro before settling in Raleigh.
The family moved into Walnut Terrace in the late 1980s, when it was a maze of brick apartment buildings that served as subsidized housing for low-income families, though it has since been rebuilt.
Whitaker says the current community of neatly painted houses, townhomes and apartments that bears the same name has little in common with the place she grew up.
At the time, there were seven children so the family moved into a five-bedroom apartment. Her mother worked nights stocking shelves at stores. Nearby aunts and uncles helped watch over the children, but as the oldest she was often charged with tending her younger siblings – eventually 11 total.
But she always found time to focus on her schoolwork – first at West Cary Middle School and then Cary High.
“There was a little more pressure for me,” she says. “I always wanted to do well in school because it was something I knew was going to help change our life experience. It was always a struggle.”
Getting to school in Cary from Southeast Raleigh meant leaving home early in the morning and taking a long bus ride across town, but Whitaker says she thrived at the suburban schools.
“It was crazy but it shaped a lot of my experience,” she says. “I was from such a different background from a lot of the people there, but I wouldn’t change it.”
In high school, she was active in all kinds of clubs, including academic ones such as the National Honor Society. She also loved acting and singing, and was in the chorus and theater groups.
Whitaker was the first in her extended family to attend college, a daunting process that she navigated with little guidance.
She first attended East Carolina University, planning to major in musical theater. About halfway through, she decided to take a more practical direction, in part because she was about to be a mother.
“I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” she says.
Once she decided that she might go on to law school, she transferred to N.C. State University. She had her daughter over the summer, and returned to classes in the fall.
She graduated on time and near the top of her class with a degree in communications, and went straight to law school at N.C. Central, where she again led her class academically.
Family follows lead
Of the various legal specialties, she says she wanted to avoid criminal and family law, with their emotional underpinnings. Instead, she found herself drawn to property law.
“Housing was so much a part of my experience,” she says. “My family never owned a home, never had any real property. I had no idea what that entailed, and I wanted to learn more about it.”
She worked as a clerk at Smith Anderson for a summer while she was in law school, and was hired right after graduation, even at a time when the recession had made jobs related to real estate scarce.
Most of her work involves helping clients buy and sell commercial properties, though she’s also worked with public utility purchases and eminent domain.
In her five years with the firm, Whitaker has also found time for service, particularly helping to draw and keep more minority lawyers.
When she was in law school, she was chosen to attend the Thurgood Marshall College Fund Leadership Institute in New York, which is aimed at providing minority law students with key career skills. And she has used those skills in service of other young lawyers of different backgrounds, mainly through N.C. Bar Association efforts. Last year, she was named chair of a Bar committee devoted to increasing the number of minorities in the legal profession year.
She also served as co-chair of its ¡Adelante! Moving Forward Program, which aids young attorneys from various backgrounds to make the transition from school to career – a time that can be a key stumbling block for young attorneys. The annual, daylong event includes a diverse array of speakers on topics such as networking and managing your finances.
Whitaker also works as a volunteer with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Lawyer on the Line program, which offers free legal advice to low-income residents.
Her siblings looked up to her success, and several have gone on to earn degrees and forge successful careers.
Through her work with young lawyers, she’s helping to ensure that others from outside her own large family also follow her example.
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Sharita Marie Whitaker
Born: Philadelphia, January 1986
Career: Attorney, Smith Anderson
Education: B.A. communications, N.C. State University; J.D., N.C. Central University
Family: Husband Brandon Collins; children Aaliyah and Dominic
Notable: In her spare time, she is writing a novel about pre-colonial Africa.