Sharon Dornfeld (Gary Lewis)
Sharon Dornfeld said that a recent chance encounter reminded her why she donates so much time to help children.
“I went a little late to a Danbury Bar Association meeting at a local restaurant, asked the young host to point me in the right direction, and was surprised when he said, ‘Attorney Dornfeld?’ When I said ‘yes,’ he threw his arms around me and gave me a big hug. I had no idea who he was. Turns out he was a kid I had represented in his parents’ divorce about 10 years ago.”
Dornfeld, a Danbury family law attorney whose legal practice and volunteer work include representing minor children in high-conflict custody and visitation disputes, was one of 13 lawyers from throughout the state who were honored by the state Judicial Branch for their pro bono work. The attorneys were recognized at the Law Tribune’s Honors Night ceremony on June 19.
Dornfeld is known as one of the most experienced guardians ad litem in the state and was cochair of a legislative task force that in late 2013 looked into various family court issues. She and Carolyn Wilkes Kaas, a professor at Quinnipiac University Law School, are coordinators of the six-week training program for lawyers who want to be a guardian ad litem or attorney for minor children.
Further, Dornfeld has judged a mock trial competition in Danbury for the past 25 years. And she sometimes accepts Probate Court appointments to serve as a conservator for elderly people who are unable to care for themselves. “I give courthouse tours to schools and classes. It’s fun,” Dornfeld said.
She said that representing children, like the one she recently ran into to, is more gratifying than depositing a check.
“As I was saying goodbye to go off to the meeting, he gave me another hug and said: ‘Thank you for being there for me when I really needed someone to be there,’ ” she said.
Dornfeld said she became interested in labor law while in law school, and early in her career did civil litigation at a law firm. But probate judges soon started appointing her to represent children and the elderly.
“I was liking that more than I was liking the general civil litigation stuff,” Dornfeld said, adding that she had a hard time getting interested in someone’s property boundary line or a lawsuit over money. “I discovered when I was repping the kids, I was going to have short- and long-term effects on the kids’ lives,” she said.
When she started representing children in the late 1980s there weren’t many people who knew about that area of law, Dornfeld said. So she did a great deal of research on Connecticut family law. She was appointed to represent the children in Newman vs. Newman, which ended up in state Supreme Court in 1995 and resulted in children getting increased powers to appeal a trial judge’s rulings concerning child-support payments.
That, said Dornfeld, put her on the map among the state’s family law lawyers. “All of a sudden my name is associated with this,” said Dornfeld, who afterward would speak to bar groups on child-representation issues.
Kaas said that the job of a guardian ad litem and a family law attorney is a difficult one but Dornfeld knows how to handle every angle. “Somebody’s always mad at you,” Kaas said. “I learned a lot from her and I could see that she was universally respected.”
Kaas said the training to represent children came about because there was a realization that the quality of people representing minors needed to be improved. “Not everyone was taking it seriously. Everyone agreed that there had to be more training,” Kaas said.
Dornfeld said she steps up to the plate to do volunteer work whenever she is asked. Sometimes that request comes from a judge. Other times, it comes from parents or attorneys.
“There are cases where they need somebody [to represent children], and there’s not going to be any money and if they need it, I do it,” said Dornfeld.
“It is a privilege to be able to use the knowledge and skills I have as a lawyer to make a positive impact on a young person’s life. I feel lucky every day to have the opportunity to have this type of practice, and grateful to be able to have learned from so many really wonderful and generous judges, attorneys, mental health professionals, [Department of Children and Families] workers, and family services counselors I have worked with over the years.”•