Nickola Cunha
Nickola Cunha (Gary Lewis)

Nickola Cunha’s desire to help others started when she began shouldering a big burden at a young age.

Now a general practice solo in Hamden, Cunha Britain was just shy of her 21st birthday when her mother passed away, leaving her in charge of caring for her younger brother and two sisters. “I inherited them from my mom,” she said. “My father wasn’t in a position to take care of them.”

Cunha worked her way through college in various jobs while raising her siblings. She became a paralegal, and did that work for for 20 years. She decided to pursue law school, and in 1999 graduated from Quinnipiac University School of Law. She started out handling real estate closings and tenant and landlord disputes, eventually expanding into family law and criminal law cases.

Along the way, Cunha said, she began taking free cases when she met people at the courthouse who seemed to be in need of her legal training.

Cunha’s willingness to help those in need, handling as many as four criminal law or child protection cases for no fee each year, has earned her the admiration of judges in the Milford-Ansonia Judicial District. Her spirit of giving back to the community with free legal service prompted Judicial Branch officials to choose Cunha as one of 13 lawyers statewide to be recognized for pro bono work. They were recognized at the Law Tribune’s Honors Night Ceremony on June 19.

Laurel Ellson, a Milford solo family lawyer, said Cunha is deserving of the honor for the work she does handling family law cases for low fees or no fees at all. “I’ve had interactions with her, and she has a real feel for human kind and seeing what is best for people,” Ellson said. “I had one case where I was representing an ex-husband who was seeking visitation with his children and she was representing the ex-wife, and it really stood out to me how she was willing to hear what my client had to say. She was willing to sit down and talk to him, when some other lawyers would not have been willing to do that.”

The ex-husband had turned his life around, and was hoping to be reunited with his children.

The case did not result in an agreement, Ellson said, Cunha “made sure she left the door open for future communications on this,” she said.

Cunha, whose first job as a lawyer was working for George Romania in Hamden, said she started getting involved in providing pro bono services in juvenile and family law cases after meeting a social worker in court. “This counselor really liked the way I handled my cases, so she started to give my number out,” Cunha said.

She often represents the interests of the child in a custody hearing. She also represents parents in custody and visitation matters. With a busy practice, Cunha says she’s never participated in a formal pro bono program.

“Sometimes, I’ll be in court waiting for my case and I’ll run into someone who needs help, and that’s how I get involved in a pro bono case,” she said. “To see a child who needs representation, and you know there’s something you can do to help them … It’s just important for me to do what I can.”

A mother of grown children, she acknowledges that her own experiences as a young woman taking care of her siblings helped shape a desire to give back to others less fortunate than herself.

“I grew up, I’d say poor, we came from nothing,” Cunha said. “And my husband came from Portugal as an immigrant and started from the ground up. If I find people out there who are unable get the resources they need to get the right help, I like to do what I can to help. That’s what it comes down to.”•