Irene Scott remembers asking why most law firms in Minnesota would not interview female lawyers in the 1950s, much less hire them.

A senior partner in one firm gave a memorable answer: Training a woman to be a lawyer was like teaching a dog to walk on his hind legs, he told Scott, a 1950 University of Minnesota Law School grad.

"You could do it, but why bother?" he said.

Scott, 89, laughs about it now. He later apologized.

Scott went on to become an attorney at another firm, Leonard Street, "where they treated me like a fellow lawyer" and eventually made her a partner.

The legal profession has undergone a transformation in the past 65 years, and the advances of female lawyers will be celebrated in the lobby of the U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis at 4:30 p.m. on Monday. Pioneers will be honored, and an exhibit will be on display for two weeks, highlighting the history of women in Minnesota law — and some of the barriers women faced.

Organizers of the event say despite the breakthroughs, there is still a glass ceiling.

"There are very, very few women who make partner or get to the upper echelons" of the major law firms, said Rachna Sullivan, a partner at Fredrikson & Byron. The number of women at these levels is "dismal," said Rachel Zimmerman, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Federal Bar Association, a partner at Merchant & Gould and co-chair of the event.

The pioneers will have some stories to tell.

Esther Tomljanovich remembers going to work in the revisor's office at the Minnesota Legislature in the early 1950s. "I wasn't going to get a job at a law firm," she said.

"The revisor hired a man to do the drafting, and I was hired to do the indexing and editing of Minnesota Statutes and Minnesota session laws. He said that was because women do boring work so well. And it was indeed boring work, and I didn't do it so well."

Still, Tomljanovich became head of the revisor's office. Gov. Rudy Perpich later appointed her a judge in Washington County District Court in 1978 and to the state Supreme Court in his second term in 1990. She retired in 1998.

Some of the firsts

Martha Angle Dorsett became the first lawyer in Minnesota history, but not without a fight.

She and her husband, Charles Dorsett, graduated together in 1876 from Drake Law School in Iowa, says Rebecca Bryden of Minneapolis, Dorsett's great-granddaughter.

"They moved to Minneapolis and applied in the fall of 1877 to be admitted to the bar. He was granted a law license in January," says Bryden, who has researched what happened. "She was not."

According to historical accounts, Hennepin County Judge Austin H. Young denied her application, saying the "part assigned to women by nature is, as a rule inconsistent" with "lifelong application" needed to practice the law. He nonetheless told a newspaper reporter that "the lady passed the best examination of any applicant for admission that has been presented for a long time."

Bryden said that Dorsett and her husband spent the year lobbying the Legislature, which voted to remove the word "male" from the attorney qualification statute. She was admitted to the bar in 1878.

The first black female attorney in Minnesota was Lena Olive Smith, who received a degree from Northwestern College, one of five law schools that became the William Mitchell College of Law.

"She was a community lawyer helping people with real estate transactions and divorces and criminal defense and general practice," says Ann Juergens, a professor at William Mitchell, who has written about Smith's life.

But she was a civil rights activist from her early teens. She campaigned to desegregate the Pantages Theatre and other public accommodations, forcing a local bar to serve blacks and make the University of Minnesota admit a black woman to its nursing school. She was president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP and a proponent of mass protest.

"In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, she was the most impactful woman lawyer in the state," Juergens said.

Smith will be remembered at another program in the courthouse lobby honoring minority judges in Minnesota on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.

A key advocate behind both programs is Minnesota's Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who recalls that when he entered the University of Minnesota Law School in 1969, the law was "a white, male-dominated profession" and it was difficult for "women and people of color to fit in." Programs can continue to foster more diversity, he said. "There's nothing wrong with looking at what we're doing right and what we are doing wrong."

Old war stories

Complaints about the "glass ceiling" are not as dramatic as some of the startling stories some judges recounted last week.

There was the time that Peter Popovich, who later became state Supreme Court chief justice, told Tomljanovich he led a group of prominent lawyers to dissuade Gov. Karl Rolvaag from appointing Mary Louise Klas, a lawyer in his office, to a municipal court post in the early 1960s. Her husband, Dan Klas, was an attorney.

The lawyers told Rolvaag "it would not be wise because Dan might have a hard time coping with a wife who was so professionally successful," Tomljanovich says.

"It blew me away," says Klas, now 84, who cried when she heard it. Klas was finally appointed a state district judge in 1986. Her husband said that no one ever asked him his opinion. "I would have been on the bandwagon for my wife, of course," he said. He thinks it was an old boys' club at work. They didn't want to open the judgeships to women."

That was reflected at the University of Minnesota Law School, where the number of female law students surged in the 1970s, yet "there was one woman's bathroom," said U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery.

"In my era, the opportunities were clearly in the public sector," says Montgomery. The private sector law firms were very slow to hire women."

Eighth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Diana Murphy recalls attending law school and wanting to be a trial lawyer at Lindquist & Vennum . She called Ed Glennon, a lead trial lawyer, and asked whether it was true that he would not allow a woman to work as a trial lawyer.

Murphy said Glennon said it was true. He did not think juries would accept women.

Says Murphy, "I was shocked listening to this."

But he told her to go to work there and "we will see if you can make it." He let her become a trial lawyer; two years later she was appointed a municipal court judge in Minneapolis.

Eleanor Nolan was briefly a special municipal judge in 1940, but Betty Washburn is generally considered the state's first female judge, named a municipal judge in 1950 by Gov. Luther Youngdahl.

In 1969, there was one female judge, comprising 0.5 percent of all state judges. Today there are 123, or 39 percent. "We have made great strides in the state judiciary," says Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.

A total of 38 of Gov. Mark Dayton's 79 district court judge appointments, 48.1 percent, have been women.

At the federal district court level, three of the state's seven active judges are women: Montgomery, Joan Ericksen and Susan Nelson. If President Obama nominates Wilhelmina Wright, as recommended by U.S. Sens, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and she is confirmed by the Senate, the majority of federal district judges in the state will be women.