The Big Fish of Family Law
Samuel Schoonmaker literally wrote the law on divorce in Connecticut.His clients, such as Jack Welch, are sure glad he did
Published in 2006 Connecticut Super Lawyers magazine
on January 23, 2006
Updated on November 7, 2019
A large angelfish stares at people passing through the Schoonmaker George & Colin waiting room. Perched between pieces of nondescript furniture, the 200-gallon fish tank is easily the most elaborate object in an unpretentious office suite that has hosted such clients as corporate raider Carl Icahn, domestic doyenne Martha Stewart and retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch.
The son of a department store owner, Samuel Schoonmaker III didn’t intend to practice law any more than the angelfish intended to wind up in the tank. But a piece of fatherly advice combined with a passion for learning about people — their lives and psyches, history and future — propelled him into the role of big fish in the small and highly competitive pond of high-stakes matrimonial law.
“People in trouble are very interesting,” Schoonmaker says. “They may be normal the rest of their lives, but under stress they can do very strange things. Our job is to get them out the other end of the tunnel.”
With his rumpled suit, gentle handshake and affable nature, it’s easy to picture him helping customers at Schoonmaker’s, the store his forebears established in New York’s Hudson River Valley in 1863. Schoonmaker’s started out as a place where customers could buy dry goods; by the 1920s it had grown into a block-sized department store. Schoonmaker worked there as a teenager and enjoyed every minute of it.
“I started in the toy department in 1946. I used to love to sell electric trains — we had a big one set up at Christmas time, when one floor was the toy department. I loved working there; I loved the employees who were salt-of-the-earth-type people. My father was one of those old-time merchants who stood at the front of the store and would say, ‘Oh, Miss Hill, good morning, we just got a shipment of some new dresses in and the colors are just right for you,’” he says.
“In the 1940s, we had live models in the show windows. The model would go in and have a certain dress on and stand there for a half hour or so. I’ve never seen live models anywhere else.”
The rise of big chain stores in the 1950s heralded the beginning of the end for independents like Schoonmaker’s. He recalls the newly opened JCPenney store in Newburgh sending scouts in to check out Schoonmaker’s prices, and then going back and marking down to undersell the merchandise. He went off to Yale to study economics with the intent of applying what he learned at the family business. He graduated in 1958, and by 1962 it was clear the store was in trouble; it would eventually be sold to Grand Union Company. Schoonmaker set his ambitions in a new direction.
“I applied to Yale medical, law and business graduate schools and got into all three,” he recalls. “I called Dad, and said, ‘What do I do?’ He said if you go to medical school or business school you’re shutting the door on the other two. If you go to law school you can still go into business, so you’re keeping two doors open. So I followed his advice and went to Yale Law.”
Schoonmaker soon found that consumers of legal services were just as intriguing as consumers of dry goods. “At Yale I was intensely involved in the Public Defender Association. I was in the jail every single day as a law student … there is quite an interesting cross-section of humanity in there,” he says.
After graduating from Yale Law in 1961, he again turned to his father for advice, who directed him to the Stamford office of trusts-and-estates giant Cummings & Lockwood. “The only lawyer my dad liked, his own lawyer, worked for that firm. I did criminal work, mostly motor vehicle work like DUIs. Most people and even most lawyers don’t understand how complicated a DUI is to defend. And every time we took a pro bono case it came to me, from murder cases right on down.
“Usually, matrimonial law and criminal law were not done by the big firms; it was beneath them,” Schoonmaker continues. “I was working for the one partner who, when one of the trust-and-estate clients came in with a divorce or a criminal matter, he got it. As the new associate, it got passed on to me.”
Schoonmaker was troubled by the nature of 1960s matrimonial legal practice. “The only way clients could get a divorce was to present evidence of intolerable cruelty, and the only way to meet the standard in most cases was to fabricate,” he explains. When he stepped out to lead the movement for divorce reform, he was propelled into his first media spotlight. “I got a high profile from that,” he says. “We were fighting the Catholic Church and the bar. Even my senior partner opposed me in it. But I said, ‘All I’m doing is suborning perjury every day.’ I told him, ‘I’m not going to stop pushing for this. If you’re going to fire me, I can go somewhere else.’”
By that point, Schoonmaker was a valued member of the firm, quietly representing the wealthiest of the firm’s clients in marital dissolution. And in 1972 the reform bill he helped design, which established no-fault divorce in the state, passed the legislature. He counts this as his proudest professional moment. “Not often do any of us have a chance to really make a difference,” he says. He notes that the reforms created the legal environment in which he continues to work today. “The law works so well that it has never been tinkered with. An article I wrote about [divorce in Connecticut] in 1973 applies today, every word of it.”
Schoonmaker’s background in retail paid dividends in the firm as he had a keen sense of the business side of law. Before long he was named managing partner. “Cummings & Lockwood was a large firm selling multiple legal products — that’s like my department-store background. It’s not much different from selling pans and bed linens. When you have a big law firm, with each department you have all vastly different legal products with vastly different economics. To manage those and make them profitable, it’s a different formula for every product.”
Yet like fashions on mannequins, change was inevitable. “It got to a certain point that it was simply time to leave, so I gave up the managing-partner role,” Schoonmaker says. Another father-son phone conversation preceded his departure, this time between him and his son, Samuel Schoonmaker IV, a Columbia Law grad, then an associate at Day Berry & Howard in Stamford.
Until he got a phone call from his father, Schoonmaker IV assumed he’d stay happily working where he was for the rest of his career. But when the two Sams discussed the possibility of a family business, everything changed. “Dad had worked with his father at the store, and his father had worked with his grandfather, so we talked about working together, and decided to do it,” the younger Schoonmaker says. He handles the firm’s appellate work.
And the firm may not be done adding Schoonmakers. Another son, Eric, is a third-year law student at Seton Hall. “He worked for a matrimonial firm in New Jersey this summer and wants to do the same thing we do, and I said that’s up to your brother, not me, I don’t want to interfere with that decision,” the elder Schoonmaker says. He wryly notes that his wife of 40 years, Carolyn, is a justice of the peace. “She marries them and we divorce them.”
The firm started with a base of clients Schoonmaker and fellow attorney Cindy George brought with them from Cummings & Lockwood, which didn’t create any conflict since their old firm “as a general rule doesn’t do matrimonial law.” Schoonmaker’s plan was to start out small and stay small, and that’s what has happened. Pretty much.
“I promised myself I’d have no more than four lawyers, but here I have seven. I should listen to my own advice: Keep it simple, stupid. But we’ve been successful, and to do that you need to do one thing and one thing only. Refer people out to other competent lawyers on those things you don’t do,” he says.
It helps that his firm serves an affluent area where a competent and discreet divorce lawyer is worth his weight in billable fees. “This area is the best in the world to do family law,” Schoonmaker says of his small corner of Connecticut. “There are more high-net-worth individuals here than anywhere.”
One such well-heeled individual who turned into a client is Mary Vann Hughes. She wanted a divorce in the late 1990s from writer Evan Hunter (better known for police procedural novels under the pen name Ed McBain). She ended up working with Schoonmaker almost by accident.
“I started out getting recommendations for all the big New York lawyers,” Hughes recalls. “The first big-name New York attorney realized that my primary residence was in Connecticut, so I needed a Connecticut contact, so he brought Sam in. Well, Sam turned out to be the one right there on the scene, the one of the bunch who did his arithmetic so fast it’d make your head spin. He’s so smart and quick, and knows the law up a storm, no question about that.”
All divorces are difficult, and Hughes’ certainly was. Hunter was suffering from larynx cancer (he passed away in July 2005), and after 24 years of marriage, he had entered into a new relationship. To complicate matters, Hughes and Hunter co-owned a business that held the rights to their intellectual property.
“Sam had a hard row to hoe,” Hughes says. “The day they finally got something signed, I was in one room pacing around, Evan and the lawyers were in the other room, and Sam kept Evan there from early morning till seven in the evening and got him to sign something before he could go home again and change his mind.”
Hughes credits Schoonmaker with helping hold her together through it all. “Sam knew the law, but he didn’t try to exploit it,” she says. “Some people seem quite willing to represent the devil and no matter how unfair the case might be, if they can fight it and win it that’s all they care about. But I always got the feeling that wasn’t the case with him. Fairness and morality matter to him.”
Dealing with high-profile clients also requires another distinct skill: handling the media. This is something Schoonmaker does well. “I like to keep these things private,” he says, citing one of the reasons such people as George C. Scott and Frank Gifford come to him. “But to do this, I need the cooperation of the other attorney. Jack Welch, for example, in his first divorce, there was no mention of [the proceedings] anywhere. In his second divorce, his wife got a law firm that, in my opinion, was more interested in publicity than in serving their client. [The firm] filed a grossly inappropriate affidavit and gave copies to the media before they even filed.” The affidavit detailed hundreds of millions of dollars in perks that Welch was allegedly continuing to receive from General Electric after his retirement. “It got coverage from the media like crazy. So you have to do damage control. You have to talk to the media. I’m very honest with reporters on what I can and can’t talk about and why. I don’t stonewall them.”
Not all of Schoonmaker’s clients wind up in the midst of a media battle. In fact, he says, “about 5 percent of the clients who come in to me for divorce get patched back up. You first assess what they’ve done to repair the marriage. You assess their emotions. We are not in the business of taking apart marriages that can be saved.”
Civility pervades Schoonmaker’s approach to litigation. “I don’t know why, but I don’t let myself emotionally join the madness,” he says. “The last thing your client needs is someone who will join the fray. And between lawyers, the matrimonial bar is a little bit like a fraternity. There is only a small group of people who do high-networth, high-income divorces. We try to conduct what could be a very uncivilized practice in a very civilized way. We don’t go out of our way to make waves. We do it like ladies and gentlemen.”
His opponents have noticed the level-headed demeanor he brings to the table, and they appreciate it. Richard Silver has been opposing Schoonmaker since their earliest days of practice. Since that time, “matrimonial law has gotten a lot more sophisticated,” Silver says, “but the issues are always the same. The money issues get more complex but the basic animosity between divorcing spouses is constant. It’s very emotional and the clients are very demanding, needing attention at all hours of the night and day. Sam’s been doing this as long as anybody, and he’s extremely competent. I’ve always found him to get down to brass tacks without trying to make the matter larger than it is.”
Schoonmaker’s recent 70th birthday has him admitting “it’s time to slow down just a little bit. I still work 1,500 to 1,600 billable hours a year, but that’s down from 2,600 a few years ago. My wife and I also have a home in Florida that we go to a couple of weeks a year, and I practice law there for a few hours a day. I’m a little bit of a control freak. I need to know what’s going on. I have the phone and fax machine and computer, videoconferencing, so the only thing I can’t do down there is go to court. You can’t put clients on the shelf.”
That’s always been the key for Schoonmaker. Whether helping someone find a toy at Schoonmaker’s Department Store or calming the nerves of a distraught spouse at Schoonmaker George & Colin, he’s built his reputation on helping others. It’s what gets him up in the morning and keeps him going.
“I love the people, the other lawyers, being part of the action. If I didn’t do this, I’d feel like I left the world.”