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May 13, 2010

Valerie Sasaki ’01: A Steward of the Profession

Becoming a lawyer was never in Valerie Sasaki’s plans, but those who have been fortunate enough to work with this successful young professional are glad she changed her mind.

Valerie Sasaki '01“My family is composed entirely of farmers, scientists, and healthcare professionals,” Valerie says. “I was always confident that I was going to be a doctor, but I decided to become a lawyer because I loved research and writing. I’ve also always really enjoyed puzzles. It seemed to be a natural fit with my interests and skills.”

The Class of 2001 graduate knew she made the right decision while sitting in her Legal Profession class at Oregon Law and says she was struck by the amazing legacy of the profession.

“That was the first time that it really hit home that I was studying to become a steward of the profession, as had the attorneys who came before me.”

Valerie moved to Oregon from Delaware when she was seven years old. Her family ventured westward so her mother could work for the Portland VA Medical Center and Oregon Health and Sciences University; and so her father could earn an optometric degree from Pacific University.

Valerie frequently notes the supportive nature of her family and attributes a great deal of her success to the opportunities they afforded her.

“I wake up every morning and feel blessed,” Valerie says. “I have been incredibly fortunate to have had many opportunities in my life — many due to my family and to the great people that I have met along the way.”

This gratitude is a motivating force for Valerie to give back to both her civic and professional communities. She spends two-to-three hours every Saturday mentoring two high school juniors as a part of Minds Matter, a program dedicated to helping very bright, low-income high school students prepare for college. She also serves on the board of directors for Portland Taiko, a multicultural arts organization, and currently is serving as chair of the Oregon State Bar’s Taxation Section.

“For me, involvement in the community and in the bar are small ways that I can give back,” Valerie explains. “I also really owe a huge debt to the professionals who have been mentors in my life; thus, mentoring newer professionals is very important to me.”

Valerie is an associate with the Portland firm of Miller Nash LLP and focuses her practice on tax law — a field that appeals to her due to its technical challenges and intellectual stimulation. Most recently, she has been working with a wide variety of clients, Fortune 50 companies to individual taxpayers and closely-held companies.

“This has been very rewarding work because most folks think that taxes — and the agencies that administer them — are pretty scary. As their counsel, I am often able to have an immediate, positive influence on the situation.”

It’s hard to imagine that someone this together has experienced many setbacks, but Valerie has had her fair share of disappointment throughout her professional journey. Her reaction to potential setbacks seems to be what separates the successful from the unsuccessful — a positive outlook.

“I think setbacks are useful and important because they make you take a step back and evaluate where you are and where you really want to go,” she says. “I was recently reading an article about famous people who were rejected by prestigious colleges. Warren Buffett was rejected by Harvard Business School. I am no Warren Buffett, but when I was 17 and applying to colleges, Stanford rejected me — albeit nicely, but it still hurt.”

While difficult to accept, Valerie says the rejection was for the best. She earned her undergraduate degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and had the opportunity to study abroad in England — experiences that she says were both “amazing” and “enriching.”

Valerie also had her sights set on working for a large firm in Seattle after graduating from the University of Washington’s LL.M. program. She didn’t get the job and was devastated.

“I dusted myself off and moved back to Oregon, where I have been fortunate enough to build a wonderful life doing what I love with people that I like and respect,” Valerie notes. “I encourage folks to surround themselves with positive people who can keep them grounded. A positive perspective enables us to work through setbacks and broadens our focus.”

Valerie doesn’t like to talk much about her own accomplishments, but would rather focus on the advice she can lend to new attorneys just starting out. She touts the merits of hard work, being open to opportunities, and developing a strong, supportive network of friends, family, and professionals.

“One of the things that I encourage new practitioners to do is to get out and meet people — either through their church, the board of an organization of interest, or even the Tax Section of the Oregon State Bar,” she suggests. “This is not original advice. Lewis Horowitz [president and CEO] at Lane Powell and Su Suh [senior legal counsel] at Weyerhaeuser Company, both really successful attorneys and great people, gave me this same advice almost 10 years ago.”

Valerie says that there is a lot she would like to accomplish in the next 30 years or so, assuming she is able to practice that long.

“My main goal is to continue as a practitioner, which will include a variety of different elements from providing top quality client service to my own intellectual growth to developing a profitable, efficiently administered practice within my firm.”

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