Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2002

Profiles in the Law
Conquering the Courts
By Cliff Collins

For the foreseeable future, Sonja L. Henning is going to be working the courts.

From September through April, Henning, 32, is an associate in the prestigious world of corporate law, with one of Portland’s largest firms.

Then from May through August, she is among the chosen few to participate in the elite realm of professional sports: as a point guard for the Women’s National Basketball Association.

Henning, who joined Tonkon Torp last November, is one of at least three WNBA players to hold law degrees, but the only one who practices law and three-pointers during the same calendar year. A former All-American at Stanford University, Henning is in her fourth WNBA season, having played before that with the now defunct American Basketball League.

She already has known gold rings. As a junior, her Cardinal team won the national collegiate championship, and she was selected a Kodak All-American her senior year. Then in her first WNBA season, her Houston Comets won the league championship.

Henning’s dual interests surfaced early. She began playing basketball in the fifth grade, where the native Tennessean grew up in Racine, Wis. She professes to have been the worst player on the team but took to the sport right away. 'I loved it because it was a team sport,' she says. 'I loved the camaraderie, working together with the team.' She modestly credits the good fortune of having 'great coaching' with her development into a skilled performer. Today she is considered one of the best defensive players in the league.

She became attracted to the legal profession in junior high school. 'I was intrigued by the law and how it can affect our everyday lives,' Henning says.

After graduating from Stanford with a degree in economics, she took a year off to play for a professional team in Sweden. Although she enjoyed that year, she was ready to return to academics afterward: 'I actually missed it. I also enjoy the intellectual challenges of being an attorney. I’m much happier when I have a balance. When I went to law school, I really felt comfortable with that.'

She chose Duke University Law School, partly because she wanted to experience a different part of the country. When she graduated from law school, Henning thought her roundball career was in the past. But the first professional teams were forming soon after she began working at the firm of Littler Mendelson in Los Angeles. She first played for the San Jose Lasers while still an associate with Littler. She played later for the Portland Power and worked as general counsel for lucy.com, a Portland-based company that sells women’s athletic and casual clothing.

Henning’s area of specialty is employment and labor law. The fact that she is an attorney was not lost on her colleagues, who selected her to a two-year term as president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. 'It’s not something I campaigned for,' she says, chuckling. 'It’s an honor and a tremendous challenge.' Once the season ends, she anticipates 'tough negotiations' to try to bargain collectively with the league.

Henning sees much carryover between her two major pursuits of law and basketball. The biggest link is the self-discipline required to excel in either, she believes. The preparation to play on both types of courts requires lots of time and effort, and staying focused on a goal. She says a lawyer may spend 30 or 40 hours a week working with a specific client looking for an answer. 'You don’t worry about the hours, (you focus on the) goal. It takes self-discipline to stay in it for the long haul.'

She says Tonkon Torp has been wonderful in accommodating her scheduled leave of absence for WNBA seasons, which are held in summers. Victor J. Kisch, who heads the firm’s employment and labor group, grants that the arrangement was 'a unique relationship,' but was a rather 'easy decision for us, given these assets she is able to bring.' Her outstanding academic and athletic backgrounds, combined with her experience both on the client side and as an in-house counsel, made for 'an incredibly unusual skill set,' he testifies. 'In 17 years of practicing, I don’t remember seeing a resume that unique.'

As an illustration of how the firm supports Henning’s ball-playing portion of her career, Kisch points to the firm’s summer picnic, which was scheduled at the Rose Garden arena in order to take in Henning’s team’s game with the Portland Fire. Kisch calls Henning modest, easy to work with and well-liked by her clients. 'She’s really a good team player, on the basketball court and at our law firm.'

Henning hopes to practice law for 50 years, but knows her basketball years are more limited. She thinks she’ll play at least one or two more seasons: 'I’ll play while I still have a passion for it.'

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2002 Cliff Collins

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