Newtown, Conn., lawyers said they will willingly help families of victims of the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on a pro bono basis. But they doubt that any requests for help will be coming right away.
“It’s so early … people are just getting through these funerals right now,” attorney Ron Bellenot, whose practice focuses on criminal and civil litigation and foreclosures, said two weeks ago. “They’re just trying to get through this week. There still are more funerals to come,” he said, just as a procession moved past his office at 280 Main Street.
Bellenot guesses that the first requests for pro bono assistance could be for probate work or help with insurance- or medical-related claims. “If someone needs us pro bono, we will help them,” he said.
Bellenot said his office has offered sympathy and condolences to many people in the community. He added that the law firm’s door is open to anyone who needs anything. “We are willing to help anyone,” he said. “We put it out there, we are willing to help. We sent out a note to everyone we know.”
Lawyers from all over the country have been calling and contacting his office out of the blue, seeking a Newtown contact who might offer advice as to how they can help victims’ families. Bellenot recalled one family lawyer in Seattle who wanted to know the best way to go about donating to help the victims’ families.
The outpouring of kindness toward Newtown from all corners of the earth has been uplifting, he said. “It looks like the good in the world overshadows the bad, a million to one,” Bellenot said.
Newtown attorney and Selectman Will Rodgers noted that Newtown is a small town, and that all the lawyers practicing there know people affected by the tragedy. He said, sadly, that Joy Previdi, a Newtown lawyer, lost a grandchild in the massacre.
Rodgers and two other lawyers — one who lives in Newtown but practices in Bridgeport, and another who lives in Newtown but practices in Danbury — are lending their legal expertise to charitable organizations that are sprouting up to funnel money to the elementary school and to the families of the victims. “You can’t just start up a foundation” as a layman, without legal advice, he said. Some expertise in law and accounting is necessary.
Rodgers said that the local bar might not have all the expertise needed to handle matters evolving from the shooting. He noted that celebrities — many of A-list quality — and sports leagues are “lining up to help Newtown in some way.”
“We will need an entertainment lawyer. We are hoping to get one to volunteer,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers added that the law firm that provides municipal attorney services to the town, the Danbury office of Cohen and Wolf, has offered to perform some work pro bono. The same goes for the Milford firm of Berchem, Moses, & Devlin, which represents Newtown schools.
Ellen Plasil, a Newtown lawyer who focuses on divorce mediation, said that she would offer legal help on a pro bono basis if someone needs it. “If someone needs help with this and it’s legal and it’s something I can do competently, then I will do it,” she said.
Plasil said that the tragedy had a major impact on her and her clients. With the exception of one case, whom she described as a family “in crisis,” she cancelled all her mediation sessions the week before last. She said she found herself trying to cancel appointments at the same time clients were trying to contact her to cancel. “I think if you’re just a human being … this has to tear your heart open,” Plasil said.
Michael Paes practices with his wife, Fern, on 4 Washington Ave., in Sandy Hook, about a quarter of a mile from the elementary school. He said that the week before last, after people paid their respects at the makeshift shrines outside the school, they would often stop into his firm to share their feelings. “We had a number of the townspeople just come in and talk,” Paes said. “It’s been a tough week.”
Paes added that “anytime during the day, we can look out and see people,” at the memorial site.
TV crews wanted to use his firm’s parking lot to set up shop, but he would not allow it. They even offered to pay, but he still refused. Paes said he hopes everything gets back to normal soon.
“That’s what the town needs,” Paes said. “That’s what the families need.”