WASHINGTON — The early White House story line on Sonia Sotomayor emphasizes her pragmatism and a cautious, measured approach to the law developed over a years-long climb from exceedingly modest circumstances to becoming the first Latino nominee to the Supreme Court.
But an incident in the fall of 1978 illustrates another side of Sotomayor. Then a daring and assertive Yale University law student, she took a stand against a white-shoe Washington law firm that could have jeopardized her career.
While interviewing for jobs during her final year of school, she accused the firm, then known as Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge, of discriminating against her by asking questions about the qualifications of Puerto Ricans and other minorities.
Sotomayor's complaint caused a campus furor. A student-faculty panel found the complaint warranted and ordered Shaw Pittman to write her a letter of apology.
The complaint resulted from a dinner conversation between Sotomayor and a Shaw Pittman partner, Martin Krall. According to news reports at the time, Krall asked her whether she would have been admitted to law school if she were not Puerto Rican and whether law firms did a disservice by hiring minority students with inferior credentials and then firing them a few years later.
Before attending Yale, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and won that school's highest academic honor for an undergraduate.
She served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal and was one of just a handful of Latinos in her class.
Reached by telephone Wednesday at his home in Florida, Krall said only, "I've got nothing to say. That was 30 years ago."
Shaw Pittman, which merged with Pillsbury Winthrop to form Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in 2005, had much to lose from the episode.
The law school threatened to bar the firm from recruiting from its talent-rich pool of students, an associate dean at the school, James W. Zirkle, said then.
Zirkle went on to become a lawyer for the CIA and a professor at Georgetown University. He declined to comment Wednesday, as did Yale Law School. Classmates recalled the incident and said it was natural for Sotomayor to assert herself. She was known for taking on her professors -- some of the preeminent legal scholars of the time -- in class.
Martha Minow, a classmate at Yale and now a professor at Harvard Law School, called Sotomayor's stand "very courageous."
That was Sotomayor, she said: "Be your own person, and stand up for what you believe in."
Pillsbury spokeswoman Sandi Sonnenfeld declined to comment but issued this statement on behalf of firm Chairman Jim Rishwain:
"Pillsbury is committed to diversity of all kinds, and we are proud of our record in attracting and retaining minority lawyers. Having attorneys from diverse backgrounds and experiences is fundamental to our business and beneficial to both clients and us."
MultiCultural Law magazine named the firm one of the Top Law Firms for Diversity in 2008.