EDITOR'S NOTE: Sam Schoonmaker passed away in April 2015. He was a delightfully interesting person who was was a good example of leadership in divorce law. See his profile below. - Stephen Clark.
Sam Schoonmaker is one of Connecticut's original divorce lawyers - certainly he ranks among his generation's greatest influences on the profession, and on the law itself. For starters, the 72-year-old Schoonmaker has spent his career resolving the marital matters of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Connecticut residents, including many recognizable names of American business and culture. In the 60s and 70s, Schoonmaker formulated and fought for the state's no-fault divorce statutes, for years battling opponents of change on all sides. Today he and his partners handle only the most high-stakes and complex cases in the state. For all that Schoonmaker remains every bit a Yale man, well grounded and remarkably unimpressed with himself and his achievements. His stature allows him a non-self-serving candor rare among professionals these days. "I don't think what we do is all that complicated," he says. "What we deal with sometimes is complicated, but we lawyers can complicate uncomplicated things." Schoonmaker, whose family owned and ran Schoonmaker's Department Stores in New York's Hudson Valley, always thought he'd return home to run the business. But, having graduated near the top of his class, he was accepted at graduate schools for medicine, business and law. His father made up his mind for him: "He said I could go to law school and still do anything I wanted to do. I never thought I'd actually practice law." Thus Schoonmaker joined Cummings & Lockwood, whose attorneys represented his family's business. The young Schoonmaker plunged into commercial litigation and even some criminal defense work, where "psychiatric issues were often central to a case. The doctor in me was fascinated." By the mid-60s, as he began handling divorce cases, the state's antiquated fault-based divorce laws disenfranchised the "non-titled" spouse - usually the wife. Schoonmaker was comfortable in the political arena, and began working with peers and academics nationwide to formulate no-fault statutes. But the state's most conservative forces, particularly church leaders, opposed any changes, and Schoonmaker found himself in an ongoing public battle that did not end until the early 70s. (Ironically, many divorce lawyers opposed Schoonmaker's lobbying, convinced no-fault would ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã¢â‚¬Å“kill all their leverage.") Schoonmaker earned a permanent dividend from his high-profile legislative fight: He was suddenly Connecticut's #1 divorce lawyer "whether I liked it or not, or deserved it or not." His stock at the Cummings firm shot up, and by the 80s he was managing partner of the 150 lawyer firm, his clout bolstered by his department's profitability. "When you have a heart problem you seek out the best cardiologist, and you don't ask the price. That's what happened to us."
Into the 90s, as Connecticut grew and prospered, Schoonmaker's department and reputation kept growing, leading to the inevitable decision to leave the firm he'd spent his career at. "I was more upset about my colleagues being upset. It was 35 years of my life, after all." His longtime partner Cynthia George made the jump with him, and their new, Greenwich-based firm was busy from the first day. Schoonmaker, though slowed by a bum knee from his lifetime as a tennis player, has hardly let up. "I've never been happier." He, George and partner Thomas Colin are a team that now includes five more lawyers. In June 2008, Schoonmaker, a one-time captain of the Yale tennis team and who played competitively for many years, was inducted into the New England Tennis Hall of Fame. He and his wife Carolyn have two sons, both of whom are matrimonial lawyers. He lives in Darien, CT.