Carroll’s finely tuned sense of social justice blossomed early. One day in the 1970s, she brought a message home from her Boulder elementary school: “Mom, Ms. Becky might want to talk to you.” Most parents know the dread that accompanies such a statement, and Carroll’s mother, Rebecca Bradley, was no different. She coaxed the tale out of her too-tall, red-haired daughter. Carroll had noticed that whenever her teacher—Ms. Becky—would yell at the boys about misbehaving, she always singled out Patrick. OK, Bradley thought, where is this going? The trouble, her five-year-old daughter explained, was that Patrick was the only black boy in the class, and it wasn’t right to single him out. She told Ms. Becky to stop. When Bradley spoke to Ms. Becky at the school, she mentioned the incident because she wanted to hear the teacher’s side of the story. The mortified teacher apologized, saying, “I had no idea I was doing that.”
Carroll was born on November 24, 1971, and spent much of her childhood around adults, including long hours at her parents’ disability law practice, which begins to explain her early sense of activism. As soon as she learned the alphabet, Carroll was labeling and filing the office’s case folders. She drank “big people” coffee and sat in on client meetings.
To Bradley, her daughter always was one of those kids who seemed to feel almost too much. She was almost too curious. What else could she be? Carroll saw the people who visited the office: burn patients, wrongful-death cases, grieving parents, medical-malpractice victims. “From childhood, I began plugging into a lot of pain that people have,” Carroll says. “So much of it didn’t have to be that way. There was so much that actually seemed preventable.” From a young age, attorneys were her heroes, and she traded her Barbie dolls for social causes.
Carroll’s parents were content to be role models, just not in the way most people would expect. Bradley was more likely to send her daughter to a school bake sale with a box of Entenmann’s than make the cookies herself. She cussed in front of her two kids—Carroll has one older brother—answered questions about sex as if the kids were adults, and included them in her own causes, such as the Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry to help refuseniks (Jews who were hoping to emigrate from the Soviet Union). On family vacations, Bradley would let Carroll and her brother take a harmless sip of tequila, climb a mountain in Bolivia, or parasail. “To my kids, I’m always a lawyer first before being a parent,” Bradley says. “Kids are fun things to play with, but when it’s work time, give them to the caregivers. I believe kids learn more by way of example than [through] lectures and phony absolute rules.”
The fatherly presence of Carroll’s dad, John Carroll, was just as ephemeral. A longtime sufferer of Parkinson’s disease, he was a state legislator, a full-time attorney, and had four kids from another marriage. After he and Bradley went through a nasty divorce when Carroll was 16, the teenager started to drift. Rather than attend college after graduating from high school, as was expected of her, she picked up a minimum-wage job without insurance—and then another because she couldn’t pay bills. She was working constantly, barely above the poverty line, when a case of strep throat sent her to the hospital. She was released a few days later, 19 years old, strapped with massive hospital bills, broke—and broken.
She kept toiling at the low-paying jobs, working at places including a video store and a gas station, because she loved interacting with people. She met everyone from strippers to executives, witnessed the joy of kids’ birthday parties and the trauma of disgruntled family interactions. She endured the angry men who’d yell at her about the broken car wash, and she welcomed the guy who worked at a bakery and brought her breakfast.
At 21, still saddled with debt, Carroll decided she was ready for school. She enrolled at the Community College of Denver in 1992 and later transferred to the University of Colorado Denver. Many of the other students were like her: working to support themselves and unconcerned with typical undergraduate life. She met, married, and divorced a professor, all within two years. This “blip of a detour in undergrad,” as Carroll describes it now, only helped her focus. She completed her degree and went on to the University of Colorado law school. After passing the bar exam, she started a mother-daughter law firm with Bradley that handled disability and family-law cases. At long last, Carroll was paying her bills and helping save her little corner of the world.