Samuel Schoonmaker III
Samuel Schoonmaker III (Wendy Barrows, photographer)

For more than 40 years, Greenwich divorce lawyer Samuel V. Schoonmaker III has advised television personalities and jet-set executives on how to end their marriages.

He served as divorce counsel to fashion trendsetter Martha Stewart, financier Carl Icahn and former football start Frank Gifford. He says he represented former General Electric CEO Jack Welsh “in both of his divorces.”

Tough in trial, but smooth in negotiations, Schoonmaker, now 78, was one of the earliest full-time divorce lawyers in the state, and part a national group of high-powered divorce lawyers who were dubbed the “Dirty 30″ in the 1990s.

“That was an unfortunate nickname,” Schoonmaker said. “The real name was the Matrimonial Lawyers Network. It was a group of 30 nationally known family lawyers; we would get together on think-tank retreats and spend four or five days discussing family law.”

He says the nickname was bestowed by by a lawyer “who wasn’t let in.”

In between all the fun, Schoonmaker was very serious for many years about reforming divorce laws in the state, and he served on both the Connecticut Bar Association and American Bar Association in leadership capacities.

“He was very active in family law initiatives nationwide. He was the chair of the Family Law Section for American Bar Association,” said C. Ian McLachlan, a former state Supreme Court justice who now runs a private mediation practice. “He was a real national force in family law, and he encouraged me and others to be active in bar matters.”

Because of Schoonmaker’s many accomplishments in family law, including his efforts to bring no-fault divorce to the state, the Connecticut Law Tribune is honoring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the newspaper’s Litigation Department of the Year Awards competition.

Although he’s not one to brag, it was not uncommon back in his heyday for Schoonmaker to handle divorce cases involving assets of $100 million or more. After more than three decades at Cummings & Lockwood, the last 10 as managing partner, he went out on his own in 1996, launching the firm that’s now known as Schoonmaker, George & Blomberg .

The firm now has seven lawyers. Schoonmaker, who continues to work in an of counsel capacity, provides client support and guidance on an as needed basis. Enjoying his part-time retirement, and proud that his two sons followed him into the profession, Schoonmaker is a man with few regrets.

“If you were to pick one city in the world to do what I do, it would be Greenwich, Connecticut. If you picked one county, it would be Fairfield,” Schoonmaker said in a recent telephone interview from his winter home in Naples, Fla.

His reasoning is not based on any higher rate of marital failure in southeastern Connecticut. Rather, it’s because of the networking of the high net-worth crowd that lives there. “These people are very rich. And if you get into that circle of referrals of right people, I’m telling you, they talk to each other,” Schoonmaker said. “And that has a good affect. It increases the odds you’ll get those cases.”

Family Business

When he was growing up, Schoonmaker’s family owned and ran Schoonmaker’s Department Stores, with stores in Newburgh, Beacon and Middletown in New York’s Hudson Valley. Schoonmaker was groomed for a career in the family business, and for a time he toiled away as a toy department salesman.

But Schoonmaker had dreams beyond the rocky hills that bordered the Hudson River. He went to Yale, where he was captain of the tennis team. After graduation, he was accepted into graduate schools for medicine, business and law. He opted to study the latter. “My father said I could go to law school and still do anything I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I never thought I’d actually practice law.”

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1961, his first job was with Cummings & Lockwood, which he had counted among its clients his family’s business. “I was in literally every department” at the law firm, Schoonmaker said. “I handled real estate, trusts and estates, you name it, securities, everything.”

There was not much of a family law department to speak of at Cummings. The firm concentrated, as it does now, on estate and tax work for the state’s richest families.

Back then, divorces were much less common than they are today and represented a much smaller share of the overall legal market. Most states, including Connecticut, required divorces lawyers to offer a reason why the marriage should be terminated. As a result of those laws, most divorce cases focused on cheating spouses or cruelty.

The claims were often exaggerated or even fabricated by divorce lawyers to win a case.

In 1970, a national movement pushing no-fault divorce reached Connecticut. Schoonmaker caught wind of the debate, and decided to get involved. “When the divorce reform movement hit Connecticut, I concentrated my efforts on family law,” Schoonmaker said. He never looked back. “I felt that the old fault system in family law in Connecticut was a shame. I felt like you could trump up anything you wanted and I didn’t think that was right.”

Schoonmaker enlisted other Connecticut lawyers to go door-to-door to collect signatures and build support for no-fault divorce in Connecticut. “We lost in the state legislature in 1967, and we won in 1971,” he recalled. “There was a lot of resistance among lawyers, and I got my share of criticism at the time. A lot of lawyers thought it would ruin the divorce practice because it would remove their leverage.”

Schoonmaker’s lobbying efforts not only helped change the law, but also increased his profile. When no-fault finally came, he attracted a flood of well-to-do clients who weren’t concerned about the steep fees charged by a big law firm. “When you have a heart problem, you seek out the best cardiologist, and you don’t ask the price,” Schoonmaker said. “That’s what happened to us.”

He also got involved in no-fault divorce efforts on a national level, by leading semimars and workshops with peers and academics in other states. His overall success got him appointed managing partner at Cummings & Lockwood.

While divorce lawyers these days have a reputation for being a contentious group, Schoonmaker said it was always important to him handle cases discreetly and to have a civil relationship with the opposing counsel. “It was always a goal to get these matters over with as little publicity and as little fanfare as humanly possible,” he said. “I used to tell [the lawyer for the other spouse], ‘Let’s make as small a deal out of this as we can.’”

Schoonmaker is not one to gossip about his high-profile clients. He advises younger lawyers to stay silent as well. “These people are just like other members of their community, they just happen to be well-known, so they don’t want to have their dirty laundry aired in public,” Schoonmaker said. “I believed in that throughout my career.”

During his years at Cummings & Lockwood, he mentored several younger family lawyers, including Cynthia George, Tom Colin and McLachlan, who left in 1996 to become a judge and eventually rose to the state Supreme Court. Schoonmaker took Colin, who is now a Superior Court judge, and George with him when he left Cummings that same year to start his own firm.

George, who has been practicing with Schoonmaker for 35 years, recalled recently that Schoonmaker consistently encouraged her to get courtroom experience. He also encouraged her “to take on increasing challenges” and to take an active role with the Connecticut Bar Association Family Law section and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “Sam raised me,” she said. “Along with Ian McLachlan. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Ian and Sam.”

As for McLachlan, he now leads the mediation practice at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter. To this day, he said, he practices what Schoonmaker preached. “The practice of law in the family law setting was something that Sam has always done at a very high level,” McLachlan said. “Sam has always really tried to keep these cases on as civil a plane as possible. I learned a lot from him.”•