Against the Odds
The obstacles for women and minorities in the legal arena are shrinking—and for this group of diverse Oregon lawyers, the remaining hurdles are just asking to be cleared
Published in 2006 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on November 10, 2006
Updated on March 17, 2017
Graciela Cowger jokes that she always liked playing with boys. So, naturally, she never thought twice about entering male-dominated fields—first electrical engineering, then patent law.
At 40, Cowger is the first female managing director of Portland intellectual property law firm Marger Johnson & McCollom. She is also the immediate past president of the Oregon Patent Law Association.
Like many minorities and women, she has encountered a few barriers along the path to success. But for Cowger and four other young, highly motivated Portland lawyers who sat down recently to talk with us, obstacles tend to be viewed more as kickable pebbles than immovable boulders.
Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” These five attorneys are optimists. With intense passion, they moved forward in their education and careers, not following a straight line but remaining open to possibilities.
Among the three women and two men is a former television news anchor, a German literature specialist, a couple of engineers and one woman who took a turn as a successful businesswoman before turning to the legal arena.
Born to an American mother and a Mexican father, Graciela Cowger grew up in Tijuana. Although neither parent was a college graduate, they impressed upon their three children the importance of an education. Cowger’s aunt and uncle offered to pay for her to be her cousin’s roommate at San Diego State University.
Cowger, who excelled at math and science, majored in electrical engineering, knowing engineers fresh out of college make pretty good money. Upon graduation, she was hired by Hewlett-Packard.
And from engineering school to working as an engineer and now as a patent attorney, every step of the way she has been one of a handful of women in her field.
“If I had to crystallize it, I’d say my life has involved playing with boys and learning that the rules are different: that they speak differently than you do and they think differently than you do. You learn to adapt quite a bit.”
After working at HP for a while, says Cowger, “I noticed that some engineers were very passionate about their work. I just didn’t have that passion.”
A good friend planted the idea that she might find her passion in another field. She decided to try law school at the University of Washington.
“It was so hard getting my electrical engineering degree,” she says, “I didn’t want to just throw it away; I wanted to use it. I found the perfect mix in patent law. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.” She was among the first 10 patent attorneys to join a firm that now has 23 lawyers, and she has seen her clients also grow. Bilingual since childhood, she is able to speak Spanish with some of them.
She’s married to an HP engineer whom she met at her first job, and they have two children, ages 6 and 4. Her husband and children, she says, “are the people who keep me grounded.” She calls herself “a soccer mom with a minivan” who rarely misses a game or a school program. She now understands the hours her late father spent admiring the framed college diplomas of his three children.
In her advice to young women, Cowger includes this: “Make sure you marry the right person. The right husband helps tremendously. I wouldn’t have done the things that I’ve done if it weren’t for the tremendous support I’ve received.”
Labor lawyer Paula Barran has represented major corporations and the likes of former Portland Police Chief Derrick Foxworth. And yet whom does she consider her most fascinating client?
“Kennewick Man,” she says without hesitation. “By a country mile.”
She developed a soft spot for the 9,300-year-old man while working as trial counsel for anthropologists seeking study rights to the skeleton. But why was a labor lawyer working on a case involving anthropology and ancient history?
The sharp-witted Barran quips: “Because he was the oldest known sexual harasser. That’s why he ended up dead with a spear in his head.”
In light of her voracious appetite for knowledge, it’s not surprising Barran would work on this case simply for the opportunity to learn more about a new field. A founding partner of Barran Liebman, a firm specializing in labor and employment law, Barran has stopped tacking letters behind her name … for now. She has a bachelor’s degree from William & Mary College, a master’s degree from Cornell and a doctorate from the University of British Columbia; both advanced degrees are in 13th-century German literature. Once she determined that the demand for experts in that field was not huge, the Phi Beta Kappa student added an L.L.B. (bachelor of laws) and an M.B.A. (master’s of business administration) to the list.
Barran, 57, says, “There were no lawyers in my family, so that made it a little bit odd and unusual for me. We had a family of linguists.” Her parents were bilingual, speaking fluent Ruthenian, a Russian dialect, and her father was an interpreter at the Tehran Conference of 1943. But when she entered law school seeking an alternative to academia, she says, “I thought, ‘Okay, this is where I was meant to be all along.’”
She never perceived discrimination, even after landing her first job at a predominantly male firm. “To the extent that I had some built-in barriers, I had some offsetting amount of benefit to being the only woman. I would occasionally complain that I was tired of being a token. But it meant that I got invited into things that I might not have ordinarily been invited to,” namely bar presentations and panels.
She had to overcome an almost debilitating fear of public speaking but credits her willingness to give presentations and participate in panels as the biggest contributor to building her practice.
Married to Richard Hunt, one of the firm’s seven founding partners, she spends her spare time listening to academic lectures on CD and practicing classical guitar and banjo. She and Hunt also enjoy leisure time in Bend with their two golden retrievers, Emmett and Larry.
What remains of Beth Ugoretz’s earliest ambition is the horse. His name is Jet Set, and he’s a Grand Prix jumper.
As for Ugoretz—now the managing partner of the entire Stoel Rives firm and no longer interested in becoming a veterinarian—she has jumped a few hurdles of her own in pursuing a career in the legal arena.
Ugoretz was in premed at Stanford, with an eye to becoming either a vet or a doctor, when she changed course. At Lewis & Clark College’s Northwestern School of Law, Ugoretz tapped into a passion that had been missing from her pre-medical studies.
Before long, she was on track for a fulfilling career in business and law. Now, at 51, as managing partner for Stoel Rives, her regular circuit involves attending to nine offices in five Western states.
“I know all the Horizon flight attendants,” she jokes.
This is her return trip to Stoel Rives. After working at the firm 11 years as a partner in securities and finance, she spent the next 12 years in the business world, working at Red Lion Hotels, KinderCare Learning Centers and Northwest Natural Gas. Her business experience made her all the more attractive to Stoel Rives, which in January 2005 invited her back to be the firm’s managing partner.
Ugoretz serves on the boards of Metropolitan Family Service and the Oregon Zoo Foundation and is married to a lawyer for PPM Energy. And Ugoretz rides Jet Set at least three times a week for “therapy.”
“I don’t believe I’ve been denied opportunities because I was a woman,” Ugoretz says. “I encountered lots of hurdles, but I never took them as being genderrelated. My guess is there were some circumstances in my career that someone through another lens would have seen differently and would have been outraged. But I never took that tack. I’ve just had a pretty focused vision.”
She encourages women to pursue law careers but to expect challenging twists and turns along the path. As she’s demonstrated with her own career, the law offers myriad possibilities. Her advice to women entering the field of law: “Remain open-minded for the possibilities.”
During Al AuYeung’s childhood in Hong Kong, it was expected that boys would study science and girls would study art. That was the rule for him and his big brother. But eventually, three more brothers and a sister came along, and the culture gradually opened up. Their parents’ hard line softened.
“As time went on, there was a little more liberalization of the discussion of what you wanted to do,” says AuYeung, 55, an intellectual property lawyer at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt.
But he was already on a science path, studying engineering at the University of Portland, the school recommended to him by his Catholic high school in Hong Kong. From there he went to Stanford for a master’s degree and was hired by IBM. After a few years of working as a software engineer, he went into management.
“Those were the great days of IBM, emphasizing people management,” he says. “The ratio was one manager to eight employees.”
To improve his business skills, AuYeung studied for a master’s in business administration through a University of California at Berkeley program held in San Francisco’s financial district, with real-world experience in finance. Eventually, the antitrust issues then faced by IBM sparked AuYeung’s interest in law. So at night, he studied law at Santa Clara University School of Law.
“The world was beginning to change,” he says. “I was watching my friends who were middle managers as they aged and became useless, obsolete, and were laid off by the company.”
AuYeung left in the nick of time, before IBM’s middle-management layer imploded. He joined the San Francisco office of Blakely Sokoloff Taylor & Zafman, at that time the only firm that did Intel’s patent-prosecution work.
From IBM to Intel, “I rode two waves of the IT [information technology] computing industry,” he says.
In 1995 he returned to Oregon to open the firm’s Portland office and support Intel’s Hillsboro operation. In 2000 he launched his own firm, Columbia IP Law Group. In 2002 his firm merged with Schwabe.
“I’ve been lucky, being in the right place at the right time,” says AuYeung. “There were some obstacles but none of them really significant. And one of the nice things is that as a patent attorney, you meet a lot of smart people.”
AuYeung is married with two children. Son Ryan, 15, is a student at Overlake School in Redmond, Wash., with an interest in aviation. AuYeung and Ryan have spent many hours sitting in the car, eating take-out Happy Meals and watching planes take off at the airport. His daughter, by the way, bucked the old family tradition and did not study art. Genevieve AuYeung is a business lawyer and a Schwabe associate.
Henry “Chip” Lazenby
While growing up in Cincinnati and as a student at Harvard, Henry “Chip” Lazenby’s interests were eclectic, to say the least. He dabbled in school and community politics, acting and music; studied filmmaking and journalism, interning at Boston’s WBZTV. He graduated with a degree in government, then visited Oregon. More than three decades later, he’s still here.
“I used to joke that I couldn’t meet anybody from Oregon here,” says Lazenby, 54, who recently started his own firm, Lazenby & Associates. Like him, the new Oregonians he met had simply come for a visit or were just passing through. But now, Lazenby’s Oregon roots are deep, and his connections are a veritable spider web of makers and shakers in law, business and politics.
He started out as a reporter, producer and anchor at Eugene’s KEZI-TV. But in 1977 he succumbed to the lure of politics again and became state Attorney General Hardy Myers’ aide when Myers was in the state House of Representatives. A law degree, Lazenby reasoned, seemed just the ticket for his own foray into politics.
But he gave up his ambitions when he realized he liked being a lawyer. He worked as a public defender for five years, then as a trial lawyer for the county before getting his masters in business administration and going to work at Preston Gates & Ellis in Portland as a commercial litigator.
“I’d only been there four months when this sort of [Oregon] governor drumbeat started,” he says. “So I went down and interviewed with Gov. [John] Kitzhaber, who’s now a good friend. He ended the interview by saying, ‘You went to Harvard, right? How are you going to feel about working for a Dartmouth man?’ ”
After Kitzhaber left office, Lazenby became general counsel for the Portland Development Commission, working on major projects such as South Waterfront and the Meier & Frank renovation. About a year ago he became of-counsel at Bullivant Houser Bailey, focusing on real estate and development. He is co-chair of the Portland Sustainable Development Committee and serves on the boards of De La Salle North Catholic High School, the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center and the Portland City Club.
Now he tells minorities in law school not to follow the path he took. “There’s a little bit of a trap there if you go into criminal law,” he says. There are a lot of ‘us’ there, but the path out of it is through creating wealth in our communities, and you have to learn how to do that.” His advice is to “get involved in companies, understand how money works, see how people build and maintain wealth, and create the new, involved middle class of color.”
Lazenby is married to Lynette Spangler Lazenby, a criminal investigator, and they have a 12-year-old son, Michael. “I used to have spare time activities,” he jokes, “and now what I am is staff to my son.” He also likes to cook. Patting his belly, he says with his ever-present sense of humor, “This is not a Burger King body.”