by Tony Moore
It was July 1976, in Needham, Mass. Celebrating the bicentennial, a group of kids were riding around in a Jeep, blowing horns—trumpets and trombones. Zipping by parking meters, they reached out and grabbed one American flag after another, out for the milestone anniversary, and drove around waving them. Not exactly serious business. But …
“The police had no sense of humor, and they arrested the kids and charged them with larceny, disturbing the peace, open and gross rudeness—a whole bunch of things,” says Henry Sorett ’68, the teens’ lawyer, who’s now been practicing for more than 40 years. “And the prosecutor wanted jail time.” The case was presented as a test for Sorett, an opportunity provided him by a law firm that had their eye on the young lawyer. So Sorett tried the case for a full day in court, and at the end of the trial, the judge reduced the charges to parading without a permit and fined each kid a symbolic $17.76.
And with that, the firm decided Sorett had passed the test, and they asked him to join the practice.
Now, Sorett is a principal at Boston’s Brickley, Sears & Sorett, where he specializes in a slightly more complicated area: litigating complex gas- and electric-related fires and explosion cases on behalf of electric and gas utilities in major catastrophe litigation. Since 1983, he has served as appellate counsel in over 100 lawsuits, and he’s litigated gas- and electric-related incidents in 40 states across the country, while he and his firm saved clients literally billions in settlement costs.
“I have a facility with the experts, in that I understand the physics concepts, and that’s made it very easy for me to work on these cases,” says Sorett, an intellectual leader in the field who gives annual presentations to the likes of the American Gas Association Legal Counsel Forum and the National Claims and Litigation Association. And he looks back at Dickinson as the foundation of his deeper understanding of the science behind these cases, despite being a history major.
“I took some physics and math courses and a couple of biology courses,” he explains. “And the physics material has formed the basis for my being able to understand fluid dynamics, heat transfer, mechanical engineering,” all integral to his field. But the educational backdrop wasn’t alone in preparing Sorett for a career in law, and he might not have gone into law at all if it weren’t for the tumultuous times in which he attended Dickinson—and if he hadn’t met such influential people there.
“I show up at Dickinson as a freshman [in the 1960s], and here’s Chaplain [Joseph] Washington talking about civil rights, and President [Howard] Rubendall ’31 doing real civil rights stuff and talking about racial integration of the campus,” Sorett recalls, noting how that open, progressive tone, in contrast to his experiences growing up in an often segregated Harrisburg, set the tone for him politically. “That was a large lightbulb going off in my head, and I decided to go to law school while working on civil rights issues.”
That light bulb is still burning bright, and Sorett’s early work opposing the draft—and taking part in 1960s antiwar protests in Washington, D.C.—led to current pro bono work as an activist serving on the platform steering committee for the Democratic state party in Massachusetts and as mentor counsel to “bright, young, enthusiastic lawyers” working for legal nonprofits. He is also re-reading Professor Raoul Berger’s treatise, The Law of Impeachment, to be able to advise those who feel that they can prove high crimes and misdemeanors.
In the end, it all comes down to looking at an issue, figuring out what’s really going on and finding the truth.
“President Rubendall told me, ‘Challenge assumptions—they’re not always right,’ ” Sorett says. And he’s been doing just that for 40 years and counting.
Published July 7, 2017