Six years ago, in a feature article in a University of Connecticut alumni publication, Ethel Sorokin spoke of her days at UConn law school in the early 1950s. “There were four women and 65 men in my class,” recalled Sorokin, the first female editor of the school’s Law Review. “By my second year, only two women were left.”
There were no women on the faculty. But if Sorokin needed a female role model, she could look to an aunt, who was Hartford’s first woman allergist, and a mother who, Sorokin said, “told me that every woman should have a profession, even if she doesn’t use it.”
But Ethel Sorokin she did use her profession. Last week, following her death at age 84, Connecticut lawyers recalled her pioneering work as a female attorney and in First Amendment law. After graduating from law school in 1953, Sorokin went on to lead a firm with her late husband, Milton. Together, they founded the Center for First Amendment Rights in Hartford to promote awareness of constitutional rights.
“She saw the law as an instrument to achieve a client’s objectives; she was a very effective writer of legal advocacy,” said Rick Robinson, a business litigator with Pullman & Comley who got his start with Sorokin & Sorokin. “I learned a lot from her. I learned about the necessity of utter devotion to clients.”
Word of Sorokin’s death came as a surprise for those who worked with her, including Don Noel, the immediate past chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. When Noel called Sorokin to discuss an upcoming meeting last week, he was told she had died.
“Ethel was a great addition to the community and her passing is a great loss,” said Noel, a retired columnist for the Hartford Courant who most recently served on the ACLU’s education committee with Sorokin. “She was absolutely determined that people should recognize the importance of civil liberties and particularly that young people recognize that importance.”
Ethel Silver grew up in West Hartford and graduated in 1950 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a women’s-only school at that point. “The first thing I learned at Vassar was that a woman can do anything she wants,” she once said.
Upon returning to Connecticut, she met Milton Sorokin, who proposed to her after just 10 dates. Milton was studying at UConn law school at the time, and he encouraged his bride to do the same. Although the law was an unusual career choice for a woman in the early 1950s, Ethel was more than up to the task, graduating with honors.
After three years working for a small Hartford firm, Ethel and Milton formed Sorokin & Sorokin. They combined her interests and skills in family law, estates and trusts and media law with his interest in corporate law.
“I was pregnant with our second child when we started the firm, but I managed to get my work done, even if it meant writing briefs at the kitchen table,” Ethel Sorokin told the UConn publication. “I never felt that being a woman held me back.”
Sorokin & Sorokin thrived and eventually merged with Gross, Hyde & Williams. In 2000, the firm merged yet again, this time into Pullman & Comley. In more than 40 years of practice, Sorokin handled several key cases involving freedom of the press and business interests of newspapers.
One early win came in 1968, when she represented the Journal Inquirer daily newspaper in Manchester after it was created by the merger of two weeklies. The newspaper locked horns with the Hartford Courant, which wanted to block the J-I from publishing the syndicated column “Dear Abby” and the cartoon “Peanuts.” The Courant argued that Manchester was too close to Hartford and that the Courant would be at a competitive disadvantage if the upstart paper published the same syndicated features.
The U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division stepped in, negotiations followed, and Sorokin’s client reached a successful settlement. A few years later, she represented a Journal Inquirer reporter who was arrested for refusing to leave an Enfield town council meeting. The newspaper claimed the meeting was being illegally closed to the public. In the civil case that followed, Sorokin persuaded the court to rule in the newspaper’s favor. The decision helped shape the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act of 1975.
It was in the early 1970s that Robinson, who now works in Pullman’s Hartford office, got his start with the Sorokins’ firm. “I started working there in what might pass as a summer associate program,” he said. “But it was a lot less formal than that. My father-in-law had a sandwich shop in the same building as the law firm, and he asked them if they could use me. And they did. True story.”
Robinson spoke glowingly of Ethel’s energy and determination and recalled how well the husband-and-wife team worked together. “They had a great love,” he said.
One of Ethel’s great skills, he said, was developing client relationships. “Their friends were their clients and their clients became their friends,” he said.
Ethel was also an astute strategist in all sorts of cases, equally adept at handling divorces and fighting against media cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations. “All of this happened while she brought up these incredible kids,” Robinson said.
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One of Sorokin’s children is a doctor and two went to law school. A son, Leo T. Sorokin, is a federal magistrate judge in Boston.
Ethel Sorokin also served on the Judicial Review Council, hearing ethical complaints about judges from 1979 to 1992, and held positions with local and national bar organizations.
She was a frequent speaker on privacy issues and free press topics. Together with Milton Sorokin, who died in 1996, she created the Center For First Amendment Rights in Hartford, which featured annual symposiums of nationally-recognized speakers on free press topics.
A few years ago, the center merged its Milton Sorokin Symposium and other programs into the ACLU. Throughout the year, the program organizes lectures and classes for middle school and high school students to increase awareness of First Amendment freedoms.
Jeff White, who chairs Robinson & Cole’s appellate practice group, was a UConn law student back in 2001 when he first met Ethel Sorokin. White was in the law library when he noticed an index card on a bulletin board marked “Center For First Amendment Rights.”
The organization was looking for a volunteer newsletter editor. When White called, Ethel answered the phone. “By the time we hung up, she’d given me five things to do,” he said. “She was one of those people who was able to call you on the phone and you wouldn’t be able to say no.”
White stayed on with the center for several years, helping out whenever he could. Even as his career grew more demanding, he enjoyed working with Ethel to organize the annual symposium. “Her heart was in the right place. She was just one of those people who you don’t mind helping out,” he said. “I was sad when I heard she passed away.”•