Cynthia Ciancio Speaks Her Mind

The family law lawyer fights escalation before seeking annihilation

Published in 2015 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2015

Photo by: Paul Wedlake

Five years after an ugly divorce, Ange S. found herself back in court fighting over child support and maintenance. The stay-at-home mother of three—including a 20-year-old disabled daughter who needs round-the-clock care—could not afford an attorney on her own, so her family pooled resources to hire the family lawyer with the best reputation in town.

Ange had won custody at her divorce trial but still felt kicked in the stomach by the process. She was wary of stepping back into the courtroom. Then she saw her new lawyer in action.

During cross-examination, Cynthia Ciancio handed Ange’s ex-husband a profanity-laced text he had sent regarding discovery of financial information and asked him to read it aloud. As Ange remembers it, he did so, sweating and wilting on the stand. Then Ciancio leaned over to her, winked and said, “This is fun.”

While “fun” is hardly the word most people use to describe domestic cases—and not the kindest thing to say, Ciancio concedes—Ciancio tends to speak her mind. She tells clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear; she mentors young lawyers with tough love; and she honestly has a ton of fun trying family cases.

“I love love love it,” she says. “I’m really competitive, so making it all the way to trial means I am going to give it my all. I try everything I can to settle, but if it goes there, watch out, because I’ll be up for two days straight preparing, and I’m going to do everything I can to annihilate the other side of the case. You have to do it with dignity and respect, but sometimes people don’t deserve a ton of dignity and respect. [Ange’s ex-husband] was a jerk and he was trying to get out of paying support to her for a disabled child, so that to me was disgusting. It felt absolutely awesome to get up there and annihilate that guy. He deserved it.”

Most cases, of course, settle long before the annihilation phase, and seasoned divorce attorneys like Bill Hunnicutt look to Ciancio—who became, at age 45, one of the youngest members of the exclusive American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in 2013—as a next-generation leader for reasons beyond her trial skills. Hunnicutt has served as a third-party neutral in her mediations, and opposed her, and he found that in both situations she was able to skillfully navigate a room thick with fear, resentment and self-pity while responding quickly and accurately to the financial and legal issues at hand.

“I expect a lot from my colleagues because, unfortunately, a lot of people who call themselves divorce lawyers are disappointments,” says Hunnicutt, the co-founder of Denver’s Hunnicutt & Appelman. “Way too many divorce lawyers in this day and age are litigators before they’re problem solvers. Cyndy is not perceived that way. She’s the kind we need more of.”

Another client, David McIlwaine, has no doubt that Ciancio would have won had they gone to war; but the war itself would have been a loss for his family. He was a recovering addict whose wife thought he was not a fit parent. Their mediation process took six months and broke down several times. When the formal negotiations fell apart for good, Ciancio was able to mediate privately with the other side to reach a settlement.

“It could have easily escalated a tremendous amount and she didn’t try to do that,” he says. “Cynthia was very compassionate to the needs of all the people in the process: my former wife, myself, my children. She was very much open to the process.”

Ciancio gets past the worst of family law—unhappy people acting awfully—because she knows the reward on the other side: seeing them whole, healed, happy. She also looks for clients she wants to advocate for.

That’s a lesson she learned from her father—her partner, trainer, mentor and first employer in family law.

Ciancio’s grandfather, Frank, the youngest of 12 siblings, was the first to be born outside of Italy after the family settled in Adams County at the turn of the 20th century. He and Ciancio’s grandmother, Mary, ran a combination restaurant, bar and grocery store—Ciancio’s Famous Foods—which, for decades, was one of the only stops between Denver and Boulder. Frank had a hand in local politics, while Mary was a well-known philanthropist who helped create Adams County Mental Health. Most of the family’s descendants still live within 15 miles of where the Ciancio Ciancio Brown office now sits in Broomfield.

Ciancio and her father, Gene, joke about who gets top billing in the firm name. She is the managing partner; Gene, of course, started the business and commercial firm that preceded Ciancio Ciancio Brown in 1982—long before his daughter thought about a law career. Looking back, there were a few signs of where she was heading—like the protest she staged in elementary school over the price of milk and her refusal to give up the fight until 9News showed up—but she didn’t seriously consider law until her senior year at Stetson University in Florida. “I went in totally open-minded,” she says. “I had no idea what I wanted to do or practice.”

After graduating from the University of Denver College of Law, she worked as a deputy district attorney in Adams County, cutting her teeth on DUI, domestic violence and juvenile cases. She quickly worked her way up to co-chairing a three-week murder trial with Don Quick, who later became the elected Adams County district attorney and is now a district judge. The defendant was a 19-year-old who had been involved in a robbery that led to murder, although he hadn’t committed the murder. As Ciancio and Quick waited for the verdict, they were confident that the defendant would receive a life sentence as a result of mandatory sentencing guidelines.

And Ciancio felt sick about it.

“I knew he was guilty of being involved in the robbery and he deserved to have an appropriate punishment,” she says. “But life in prison for a 19-year-old for a robbery seemed insane to me. I remember we were in the war room waiting for a verdict from this big trial and I was expressing my feelings about this, of course, and I’m saying, ‘God, I can’t believe this guy is going to get life in prison, forever.’ Don Quick looked at me and said, ‘You really have no business being a prosecutor.’ And I looked back at him and said, ‘You’re right, I don’t.’” (The defendant received a life sentence.)

Serendipitously, Ciancio’s realization came at the same time a position opened at her father’s firm. Except when he asked her to join, he neglected one detail.

“Oh, by the way, you’re going to be doing family law,” he told her when she arrived. Ciancio had little experience in the area and thought divorce law would be the worst. But after occasionally dabbling in personal injury, criminal defense and liquor licensing, Ciancio realized she had a skill set particularly suited for divorces and custody battles. She was a good listener and a good counselor.

When the divorce of Terry Nugent, former NFL player and managing director with UBS Wealth Management, became deadlocked over the custody arrangement, for example, his divorce lawyer—a close friend who felt too emotionally involved in the case—referred Nugent to Ciancio. Nugent wanted 50/50 custody of his son, and Ciancio spent three years trying to get that via settlement, but his ex-wife wouldn’t budge. When the trial date, scheduled for March 2014, got pushed back to August, Nugent took out his frustrations on Ciancio.

“It was another summer without extra time with my kid,” Nugent says. “I was upset. You’re on this roller coaster of emotions that can lead to anger. Where do you direct that? She said, ‘Leave that with me,’ and that’s exactly what I did. She was able to talk me off a ledge and say, ‘Your time is going to come. Be patient.’”

She was right; his day in court resulted in a good custody arrangement. Nugent says that along with her command of the courtroom, Ciancio never left the high road.

“She knew at the end of the day my son’s mother and I were going to have to parent this child together, just in separate households,” he says. “I always liked that about her.”

Like most top attorneys, Ciancio is always looking for challenges and ways to make new law. In one instance, she utilized social media (precisely, a Facebook photo) to establish that a client’s ex was common-law married to another man and no longer entitled to alimony. More significantly, in two recent cases she represented the rights of psychological, or nonbiological, parents and set precedent at the appellate level.

The first case was a surrogacy gone wrong. Ciancio’s client claimed she and her husband had an agreement with a woman who traveled from South America to Colorado to be their surrogate. The biological mom maintained there was no agreement; after the birth, the baby was simply taken from her. In the end, Ciancio’s client was not declared the legal mother, but, with her husband, she kept primary custody of the child while the biological mom was allowed visiting rights. Of lasting significance was the fact that a psychological parent could compete with a biological parent for determination of parenthood.

In the second case, Ciancio represented a man who helped raise his girlfriend’s daughter until she was 6 years old. “My client was daddy to the child, but when he [and her mother] broke up, he had no parental rights,” Ciancio says. “We petitioned the court for parental rights and ultimately won—he became determined the legal father. It went up on appeal and was upheld. That’s huge to get the opportunity to work on those kinds of cases: to have them go to the court of appeals and have law made out of it.”

Ciancio herself is a mother of two and credits her career to her husband of 15 years. “I know I have nothing to complain about,” she says. “I think a lot of divorce lawyers stay married a really long time because we see what divorce does.”

Photo by: Paul Wedlake

Photo by: Paul Wedlake

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