|Profiles in the Law|
Carlotta H. Sorensen, a 50-year member of the Oregon State Bar this year, found out early in her career what she was up against.
Just after she was admitted to the OSB in 1952, she attended a bar convention during which 50-year members were recognized. Among that group was one female lawyer, but her name was never announced at the ceremony. 'The justification was, she wouldn’t want any reference made to her age,' because she was a woman, Sorensen says. 'They could have asked her. She was still working then, and she was surprised and hurt.'
This was Sorensen’s introduction into what was then a profession dominated by men. She recalls a couple of other women attending while she was at Willamette University School of Law, but Sorensen was the only woman to graduate in her class. Law school was rigorous, and just 23 of about 64 entering class members finished.
After passing the bar, Sorensen was unprepared for how difficult getting hired would be. 'I had a terrible time getting a job. The big firms hired women at that time only for legal research.' Firms around the state offered various reasons why they would not hire her. Meanwhile, she saw men who had not passed the bar being hired for law-related jobs she had applied for.
When she applied at the Public Utilities Commission, she was turned down because, they said, '‘You would have to drive all over the state.’ But I had been doing that since I was 14,' as her mother couldn’t drive, and Carlotta (she was named after her father, Carl Hendricks, a circuit judge) had to obtain an emergency driving permit after he died when she was 13.
Sorensen, a native of The Dalles, was raised in Fossil. She was educated there and in The Dalles, finishing at Wheeler High School in three years. 'I was kind of in a hurry to go to college,' says Sorensen, who can’t remember when she did not want to become a lawyer, despite that — not because — her father was one ('He didn’t want me to be a lawyer; he actively discouraged it.'). She chose law 'probably because I wasn’t very good in math,' she says, chuckling. 'I had to do something.'
She moved to California and taught second grade. At the time, Los Angeles had an acute teacher shortage and allowed anyone with a bachelor’s degree to teach. She attended college on Saturdays, taught one split shift during the day, and received no benefits but enough salary to live on. After a year, she married a former law school classmate, Glen Sorensen, in Las Vegas, and moved with him to Salem, where he practiced. She worked for a time with her cousin’s law firm there, then got her degree in education from what is now Western Oregon University, and taught second and third grades for two years.
She took a job as a law clerk with the Oregon Supreme Court and the legislature, then became an assistant attorney general for the state attorney general’s office. She spent 14 years working for the state, all the while disproving her superiors’ predictions that she would not be able to handle the work. She later worked in private practice, served as a referee for the Marion County Juvenile Department, and she and her husband worked together in private practice for a time after he became ill from a rare, congenital circulatory condition that put him in a wheelchair for the final decade of his life.
Earlier, the couple had adopted and raised two boys, brothers ages 10 and 12, who had lived in several foster homes. 'It wasn’t easy,' she admits, and both parents continued working. Sorensen says she would not have stopped practicing when she did but for her husband’s health. However, she well remembers the event that proved the catalyst for actually quitting: 'When they hired a young man who had no experience and paid him as much as me, I quit.' She says women never were paid as much as male attorneys, even if they worked the same number of hours.
'Discrimination was a way of life,' Sorensen says. 'It was just a way of thinking that had to change, and did. The civil rights movement really helped a lot. It’s just been a very gradual change.' She is 'delighted' to see how many women now are in law school and practicing without restrictions. She also would like to see more female judges: 'As more go to law school, we get more on the bench, and that’s good.'
Looking back, Sorensen says that despite all the obstacles, 'I enjoyed the law.' Her professors were fair to her, and 'the great majority of judges were fair and didn’t treat me any different from other lawyers.
'Surviving in the profession was my greatest accomplishment. When I started, I didn’t realize I would be a pioneer. If I had, I might not have done it. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve had a life that’s exceeded any expectations I could have had.'
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2002 Cliff Collins