Profiles By Brooke Springer
Photographs By Bob Capazzo
Finding the right attorney to serve your personal and professional needs can be a challenging process, but a necessary decision to make when you need a lawyer on your side. With that in mind, we decided to provide you with a list of the most respected legal counsel in Fairfield County. To get it done, we invited the peer-review experts at LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell, the legal network with a database of more than one million lawyers from 160 countries, to identify the local attorneys who have reached the highest levels of ethical standards and professional excellence.
This list is based on confidential surveys conducted by Martindale-Hubbell asking lawyers and members of the judiciary to rate the work of peers whose work they know well, using knowledge of the law and experience as criteria. The list that follows includes attorneys who have been rated “AV Preeminent,” the highest peer review available.
For more information about Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings, please visit martindale.com/ratings.
Jonathan B. Mills
Cummings & Lockwood
As chairman of the firm, Jonathan Mills splits his time between managing its five offices and 200 employees and practicing in his area of specialty, commercial real estate law.
The son of architects, he’s been able to merge his interest in building design with a passion for the law and the legal profession. He has been a member of the firm’s commercial real estate team since the start of his career twenty-five years ago.
One of his formative cases as a young attorney was the acquisition, rezoning, lease-up and eventual $100-million sale of a major commercial property in lower Fairfield County. While he has since worked on comparably sized and even larger projects, at the time it was the largest commercial real estate sale in the state of Connecticut. It involved a fifty-acre property, more than half a million square feet of office space, multiple institutional lenders, a variety of tenants and several teams of lawyers from firms all over the country.
The complexity of the transaction, the level of negotiation required, and the excitement of working with other highly intelligent people whet his appetite for more. “For a young lawyer, that was a really challenging and interesting experience and we were able to get an excellent result for our client,” says Mills.
That company, like so many others, is still a client of the firm.
What really sets law apart as an industry for Mills—and one of the reasons he enjoys it so much—is the longevity of client relationships, especially at one of the oldest firms in the state, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary.
“We’re not just in and out of a client’s life on a business transaction basis, we really try to build and maintain long-term client engagements. I think that there’s something special about having that kind of responsibility.”
Richard J. Di Marco
Cohen and Wolf
Richard Di Marco, principal tax attorney for his firm, dedicates his time to keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of tax law. He reads all the fine print on a daily basis. “Someone once likened being a tax lawyer to being a sumo wrestler. You spend a lifetime training for a three-minute bout,” explains Di Marco, who started out as a CPA and worked for the IRS before joining the firm’s estate planning and tax team twenty-six years ago.
Most people don’t want to find themselves before a probate court or an IRS appeal, but Di Marco is comfortable in both. Currently half of his work deals in estate planning and settlements, many of which involve blended families, a condition he says can complicate reaching an accord. For example, several years ago he jumped in to help untangle the estate of the late violinist Isaac Stern, who had originally planned to leave a Manhattan apartment to his children. But a month before he died he transferred the title to joint tenancy with his third wife. The children hired Cohen and Wolf to challenge this transfer. On top of that, the non-family estate executor had mismanaged the estate and grossly overpaid himself in the process. Di Marco helped the heirs reach a settlement over the apartment and challenged the executor in probate court. The executor was eventually ordered to pay the fees back.
The other half of Di Marco’s work is in tax issues, and some of his most rewarding cases involved helping people unburden themselves from large tax debts. “For example, I had a retired pro ball player who’d invested in tax shelters during the time when he was making big money playing ball. And then the IRS caught up with him later, made a lot of adjustments to his taxes, and he ended up with a big tax bill which he couldn’t pay,” he says. “So we settled it (by) paying a lump-sum settlement and we were able to save his pension.”
Wilmot L. Harris Jr.
Ivey, Barnum & O’Mara
Estate planning and estate administration work can be repetitive, says attorney Wilmot “Mike” Harris. He’s drafted the same types of plans using the same kinds of documents over the course of his legal career. “But,” he says, pausing for dramatic effect, “the people are always different. I have clients who have absolutely become lifelong friends.”
Harris, originally from Wheeling, West Virginia, was working in Washington, D.C., after law school, drafting petroleum legislation, work he did not enjoy, when a friend working at Ivey, Barnum & O’Mara told him about an opening there. After landing the job in 1968, Harris returned to Connecticut where he had attended Choate Rosemary Hall.
“It was very mundane,” Harris prefaces his story, “but one of the cases that really stands out for me was from years ago when I first started out and I was working on the accounting for a trust.” It showed income coming into the account and expenses being paid. “And it was all very routine,” he continues. The file was to be sent to the probate court, so he sent a copy to the beneficiary, as he always does to this day.
“Then she called and asked if she could come in and ask some questions.” Worried what she might ask, Harris began to review the accounting in even greater detail.
“When she finally got to the office,” he recounts, “She said, ‘I really just have one question. What is a trustee?’”
Harris remembers breathing a quiet sigh of relief before answering. Since then he’s carried the lessons from that meeting with him into every client meeting to date—it’s always better to be well prepared and to remember the great responsibility that comes with
having a level of knowledge gained through education and experience.
Joseph J. Rucci
Rucci, Burnham, Carta & Carello
Joseph Rucci, a founding principal of the Darien-based firm, is the man people call for help with their most unusual and complex legal problems. He likes it that way. Rather than settle into an area of specialty, Rucci emphatically remains a generalist because he loves the variety of his work.
Rucci made a name for himself locally by serving for many years on the New Canaan Town Council and starting a number of community banks in Fairfield County, but his network extends far. He’s done land transactions for a former ambassador in Kenya, developed a for-profit college in Colorado and managed extensive international pro bono work through his involvement with AmeriCares.
One of the reasons his reach is so broad is the network of contacts Rucci built during his early years as an FBI agent.
One of his first assignments as an agent stationed in Mississippi in the 1960s, was the groundbreaking “Mississippi Burning” trial of the killers of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers. Rucci had three roles: to protect the accused Klansmen, to investigate jury tampering, and to report from the courtroom back to Washington, D.C. In addition to being involved in something so much bigger than himself, what really impressed him was the bravery of the jurors, who were threatened and intimidated, and the fairness of the judge, a confessed segregationist who turned in the first conviction of white men in the South in a racially motivated killing during the Civil Rights Movement. The experience left Rucci in awe of the power of the law.
Rucci spent a few years on assignment in the South and earned a reputation as a top agent who could be called upon for special assignments. He enjoys the same reputation as a lawyer today. “As the saying goes,” he says, “once a cop, always a cop.”
Michael J. Cacace
Cacace, Tusch & Santagata
Throughout his career, founding partner Michael Cacace has taken on unpopular, contentious zoning matters and applied the negotiation and advocacy skills he learned early in his career as a litigator to bring different parties to the table and arrive at creative solutions.
He’s gone up against affordable housing projects in Greenwich, big development in Stamford and cell tower companies around the state. He’s also been proud to help guide some of the development in downtown Stamford, the city that honored him with the Citizen of the Year award in 1995 and the place he calls home.
Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s call to service, Cacace decided early on to pursue law with the intention of going into politics, but fell in love with the legal profession along the way. However, he has remained actively involved in the local political scene; he has served as campaign chairman for his good friend Richard Blumenthal.
It was during Cacace’s first job at a small Manhattan firm headed up by the famously high-powered Roy Cohn that he honed his litigation skills. He worked on high profile cases involving Studio 54, represented mob bosses and got involved in the Ford and Casablancas model agency wars. But it was the landmark case representing Renée Richards, the transgender male who sought to compete in the Women’s U.S. Tennis Open, that had the most lasting impact on him. With the help of John Money, a leading expert on human sexuality, his team used a newly adopted civil rights law meant to protect women against discrimination to argue and win Richards’s right to compete in a women’s sport. “The profound lesson I learned from that was that if you worked hard, did your research and presented a creative argument with strong advocacy, you could have a dramatic impact on public policy.”
James P. White
Pullman & Comley
Attorney James White specializes in commercial real estate and business law, areas that seem to involve mostly contract negotiation, but, says White, have a lot more to do with people than paperwork. Building relationships with his clients and meeting the intellectual challenges of completing complex transactions and negotiating with other smart businesspeople are what White loves about this type of law.
White started his career at a small firm in Bridgeport, branched out to start his own practice, and in 1983 joined his current firm. He started in residential real estate, then served as town attorney of Monroe for twenty-three years and of Darien for three years. One of his most gratifying projects to date was rewriting the entire Monroe town charter over a long weekend.
White likes to keep his work close to home, often helping the towns and organizations he’s involved with, but he gets equal satisfaction from meeting the legal challenges he faces.
One of his most memorable cases in recent years was helping the Jones family expand its seventh-generation family farm in Shelton. It involved crafting a unique conservation easement that signed over development rights to the towns of Shelton and Monroe and the federal government in order to preserve the land as open space, and allow the family to leverage a grant and purchase more land to open a vineyard. It was a win for the towns, the feds, the family, and the community, he says.
White has quarterbacked other open space deals in Redding, Weston, and Monroe, often with help from local nature conservancies. He’s even helped to complete sales of everything from a racetrack to a chain of forty gas stations, and broker deals for shopping centers and office parks throughout the state. His favorite case? The one that is unlike any he’s done before.
Robert T. Gilhuly
Cummings & Lockwood
Robert Gilhuly recently celebrated his fiftieth year with Cummings & Lockwood, and almost as many with his firm’s estate and trusts division, which is consistently ranked among the top in the nation for this area of law.
While he counts among his clients some of the wealthiest individuals in the nation, his advice is the same regardless of net worth: Have a plan, then maximize the dollar value you leave your children while minimizing the tax burden. “I’m a great believer in equality,” says Gilhuly. “This comes up more often than anything else, that someone wants to leave more to one child than another, and in some cases it’s appropriate, but I’m recommending equality between children just because you can’t predict the future.”
In addition to planning estates, Gilhuly is often hired to settle them. He remembers a heartbreaking case in which a man died suddenly, leaving his wife the heir of multiple international businesses, few liquid assets and a large tax burden. The widow had no experience running the businesses, and while they were profitable, she nearly lost everything because she couldn’t liquidate fast enough. Eventually she was able to sell some real estate and later the businesses, but she learned the value of succession planning the hard way.
The satisfaction in Gilhuly’s work has mostly come from helping families support one another and pass on hard-earned savings to the next generation. For his clients this often involves some of the most important decisions and most difficult conversations of their lives. For Gilhuly the issues are so familiar that he is able to approach even the most complex estates with a level-headedness that makes it easy to understand why so many people have chosen him to help manage their estates over the past five decades.