Skerjanec closes the door on long, and rewarding, law career

Carol Skerjanec closed the door on a three-decade-long career as a local attorney Jan. 1. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Vale resident Bob Bement’s name. The Enterprise apologizes for the error.

VALE – Carol Skerjanec’s life-changing moment arrived unexpectedly from her boss.

“Carol, you are already doing the work of a lawyer, you are just not getting paid for it,” said Vale attorney Bill Schroeder.

It was the late 1980s and Skerjanec was firmly rooted in her job as a legal secretary for Schroeder and attorney John Hutchens.

Skerjanec’s first job out of high school was at the Malheur Enterprise as a typesetter and then she went to work for the Schroeder and Hutchens. For the next 20-plus years, until 1987, she worked as a paralegal for the two attorneys and, later, for attorney Larry Sullivan.

Until Schroder’s comment, Skerjanec never really gave much thought to changing careers. At the time, she was 40, married and raising three sons.

 “I hadn’t gone to college. So, I started taking classes at Treasure Valley Community College just to see if I could even do college work,” said Skerjanec.

The decision proved rewarding for the Adrian native. She earned an associate’s degree from TVCC and a bachelor’s degree in general studies from Eastern Oregon University before moving to Eugene to enter the University of Oregon’s School of Law. In 1993, she graduated with her law degree.

A well-known local attorney, Skerjanec closed the door on a nearly three-decade-long law career last month, entering the ranks of the retired at 73.

She retired “because it is just time to move on. There comes a point where you say if I am not going to do it now when I am going to do it?” said Skerjanec.

As an attorney, Skerjanec put in long hours. She usually arrived at the office in Vale – at 280 A St. East, across from Farmers Supply Co-op – around 8 a.m.

About a year ago, though, Skerjanec decided to cut back on her work hours, hitting her office at about 10 a.m. and walking out the door at 3 p.m.

“I cut back because I was trying to get myself accustomed to retirement. I wasn’t particularly tired, just needed to figure out what it would be like to not have an eight- or 10-hour day,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec said she traces her success to people like Schroeder and Hutchens.

“I have been very fortunate to have people who encouraged me my whole life,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec’s work as an attorney focused on water issues, real estate, estate planning and probate matters.

A large part of her early career, she said was consumed with legal issues surrounding water uses in the Klamath Basin.

“I was representing 72 farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin. Did that for about 15 years,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec said she eventually pulled out of most of the cases because she was asked to run for a position on the Oregon State Bar Board of Governors, a state organization that oversees the legal profession. She said she didn’t feel she could devote herself fully to both Klamath Basin water issues and the board duty.

Skerjanec was elected to the board in 2005 – the first woman from the region to hold the post – and then became vice president in 2008.

“It was time consuming, but rewarding,” she said.

An experience when she was a paralegal prompted her decision to never practice criminal law.

At the time Hutchens represented a local man who was eventually found guilty of criminal negligent homicide in the death of his wife.

“They had a small child, about 18 months old. One of my last duties with that case was to take this child over to the Malheur County Jail and allow the client to see his child for the last time before he went to prison,” said Skerjanec.

She went with the child to the old county jail.

“There was a loud, clanging metal door at the end of the hallway leading to the jail. I rang the buzzer and they let me in and that door slammed behind me as I was holding this child,” said Skerjanec.

The experience was jarring, she said.

“We went back into the room where we could talk over the phone and this man could say goodbye. They decided it was all right to meet him on the other side of the jail bars in the hallway so he could touch his son before he went to prison. That was such a bad experience for me that I never wanted to deal with something like that again,” said Skerjanec.

She said there is an “absolute need for criminal defense attorneys” but it was not something she wanted to do.

“I didn’t and don’t have the ability to put my feelings aside to be able to do that,” said Skerjanec.

Helping people “through the conflicts of life” was always a big motivation, said Skerjanec.

“I have to say I have been extremely fortunate to have wonderful clients. I have had families for two or three generations that I’ve assisted one way or another,” said Skerjanec.

Her roots run deep in Malheur County. Her father, she said, was born on a homestead at Dead Ox Flat, between Ontario and Weiser near the Snake River.

Skerjanec, along with three older brothers and three older sisters, lived “in the country for the most part,” near Adrian.

“When I was 9 we moved to a little house just off the base of Brown Butte,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec said her mom worked for the Adrian School District as a cook while her father worked as a butcher and then bought a feed store in Adrian.

“I have wonderful memories of growing up in Adrian. And my friends I have had since first grade are still my friends,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec has lived in Vale for 55 years and said she loves the town but her heart remains in Adrian.

“Something always draws you to that place you were born and brought up. Especially if you had a good childhood and I did. I had parents who took us camping and hunting and rock climbing and just did a lot of things with us,” said Skerjanec.

In her three decades of work as an attorney in Malheur County, Skerjanec said she’s learned one important lesson about people.

“They are, in general, good and honest who end up having different viewpoints that sometimes make them appear not to be good people but they really are,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec can easily pick out the significant plot points in her life, both as a lawyer and a person.

She met her husband, Dan, when she was a senior in high school.

“His best friend and one of my good friends were dating and they wanted us to go out together. Neither one of us wanted to do that and then we finally did meet when I was a car hop at the A&W in Ontario,” said Skerjanec.

They began dating after Thanksgiving 1965 and by the following July they were married.

A big career highlight for Skerjanec came when one of the Klamath Basin water cases was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case, said Skerjanec, revolved around the short-nosed sucker fish and how critical habitat for an endangered species is determined.

The short-nosed sucker was listed as endangered in 1998.

“I did not go back (to Washington, D.C.) for the argument in the Supreme Court but I was privileged to assist in the writing of the brief and the preparation. For me, the thought of having the highest court in the nation accept me in front of them was probably a significant point,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec said her toughest case involved mining claims. A series of claims owned by a family were set to be released. Some members of the family, though, wanted the claims.

“That was probably the most difficult because it was a family ties issue. It was also difficult because it was a federal issue and was argued in the U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit (U.S. Court of Appeals), once in Portland and once in Sacramento,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec said she isn’t going really slow down once she retires.

She plans to do some consulting work and has plenty of hobbies to keep her busy, including flying with her friend Bob Bement, a Vale pilot.

“I golf some and hope to golf a little more. There really is so much to do and so many things to do,” she said.

Skerjanec also plans to fill her time with crocheting, reading and “going to the theater.” And she wants to spend time with another favorite hobby, genealogy.

“I love to work on that,” said Skerjanec.

Skerjanec said she will miss the fellowship with her fellow attorneys and interaction with clients.

“In this area it has, for the most part, been a wonderful association with other professional attorneys. We’ve been lucky because there was a great deal of camaraderie in the county in the legal field,” she said.

Skerjanec said she finds the public’s perception of attorneys to be one of contrasts and puzzling.

“We all, in this profession, have heard forever the jokes about lawyers and where we fit in society. But when people want or need a lawyer, they want the toughest and meanest one, the one who will carry their banner and not give the bad news,” she said. “Unfortunately for lawyers, our job is to give people the bad news and tell them whether or not their position is a sound one.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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