Attorney Thomas Fiorentino
Attorney Thomas Fiorentino ()

Manchester lawyer Thomas Fiorentino noticed the trend before a lot of others did.

It really started a decade or so ago, he says, and the pace picked up about five years ago. More and more parties in family law cases were trying to represent themselves. “People seem to think that they can get all the answers off the Internet,” Fiorentino said. “People don’t have the money. All the forms are there on the web, and they just try to do it themselves.”

Sometimes, however, they just end up making things worse. And that’s where Fiorentino has often stepped in, to offer a little friendly guidance at no charge. “We get tapped on the shoulder,” he said, referring how judges will ask lawyers if they can help someone who needs legal help. “You kind of do this stuff without thinking… You are there, you offer your services.”

The judges in the Tolland Judicial District have tapped Fiorentino again, this time for an honor. He is one of more than a dozen lawyers being recognized for their pro bono efforts by the Judicial Branch and administrative judges in the state’s judicial districts. Fiorentino and the others will be invited to the Law Tribune’s Honors Night in June.

Fiorentino is quick to deflect credit, instead praising his law partners who have understood his desire to perform extra pro bono work and a law firm staff that does a lot of the “heavy lifting.”

“The members of the local Tolland County bar are quite generous with their time and pretty much to a person we all do pro bono work. I was honored to receive the award but there are many others who, at least in my opinion, may be more deserving,” he said. “None of us are looking for a pat on the back. It’s just what we do.”

Fiorentino was a political science major at Fairfield University and then attended St. John’s Law School.

A general practitioner since 1982, Fiorentino started out at a small firm in Manchester, Marte and Keith, and then moved on to Fiorentino, Howard & Petrone. In addition to family law, he also practices criminal defense law, real estate and simple estate planning. “We all do a little bit of everything,” Fiorentino said. “I do a lot of things most people don’t want to do.”

Starting out, he handled a significant amount of juvenile court and probate court work. “Early on I had my name on just about every list for court-appointed type work. There is a large element of pro bono work that stems from those court appointments and often times one thing would lead to another,” Fiorentino said. “Since then I have continued to do my share of pro bono work, most of which comes at the request of a judge who may have a need to have a lawyer represent a party for such things as contempt [charges] or even modifications of court orders.”

Until recently, he also did significant pro bono work in the probate courts. But a former law partner, Michael Darby, was recently elected Andover’s probate judge and Fiorentino says he’ll avoid future appointments so there’s no appearance of a conflict of interest.

Contempt Cases

So his pro bono focus is on family court, where he says he represents a fair amount of people facing contempt of court for not paying child support. “You may represent someone on a contempt case because there’s a possibility of incarceration,” he said. “If that’s the case, the person is entitled to counsel.”

Fiorentino did note that the work is not always the most pleasant. “As lawyers, when you help somebody, there’s always someone who is unhappy. It’s a profession where you realize you can’t please everyone all the time,” Fiorentino said.

Judge Holly Abery-Wetstone said Fiorentino will sometimes even turn potential paydays into pro bono matters.

In a recent case, a divorcing couple was arguing over payment of legal fees. They came to an agreement only after Fiorentino told them “he would waive his fees for the day,” Abery-Wetstone said. “It’s not the first time he’s done that.”

Fiorentino also volunteers as a special master, mediating cases in Tolland Superior Court in Rockville or in Middletown’s Regional Family Trial Docket. He also mediates on a less formal basis, working with the court system’s family relations officers.

Then there is the advice he gives to pro se parties who find the web doesn’t have all the answers for a do-it-yourself divorce.

“A complicated issue to the pro se party may not be a complicated issue” for a lawyer, he said. “I mean, I think family law just screams for assistance because there are so many self-represented parties in family court.”