Law firm expands into old, familiar space

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BRATTLEBORO — A local law firm is expanding by moving in to the former office of Tim O'Connor, an attorney who was the first modern Democrat to win election as Vermont Speaker of the House.

"We've been growing for the last five years," said James Valente, of Costello, Valente and Gentry, at the corner of Putney Road and Terrace Street. "We will be up to 12 lawyers in October."

Valente said Tom Costello, the firm's founder, served in Montpelier with O'Connor from 1976 to 1980. O'Connor also lent a hand while Valente was reading to become a lawyer.

O'Connor, who practiced law for 50 years before retiring in 2011, died in 2018. He worked out of his office on Western Avenue, where he kept all his files related real estate, wills, trusts and probate administration. When O'Connor retired, local attorney Jim Maxwell took over O'Connor's files for a few years. Now the files remain in the office on Western Avenue, but there will be new faces there.

That includes Jeff Morse, a former partner of O'Connor, Sarah Vangel, Kevin Rogers and Margaret Shugart.

"The aim is to fill the void caused by the reduction in size of local law firms and the closure of others," said Valente, who called this a "full circle" transition for Costello, Valente and Gentry.

"Tom, Tim and I worked together on many matters for years, from real estate to personal injury matters," he said. "Sarah was on the other side of many of his real estate deals."

Valente, who didn't attend law school, learned how to search a title from O'Connor. Valente, who grew up in Marlboro, started reading for law in 2006 and became a lawyer in 2011, making partner in 2013 and becoming president of the firm in 2014. Several states, including Vermont, offer an alternative path to becoming an attorney called "reading the law," or serving as an apprentice in the office of a practicing attorney or judge.

"I began when I was 22 years old," said Valente, who went to Drew University in New Jersey to study history and political science before returning to Brattleboro. "Before that, I was a bricklayer's assistant, mixing mortar. But I wanted to learn the law. Tom took me in as an apprentice. I had to learn how an office works and how to be an adult."

Today, Costello, Valente and Gentry is the biggest law firm headquartered in Windham, Bennington or Windsor counties, said Valente.

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Even though Costello has been with the firm since 1984, he is still an active litigator and partner in the firm. Most of the day-to-day operations are handled by Valente, Vangel and Adam Waite, with the able assistance of Val Harlow, who Valente characterized as "our conscience and voice of reason."

Costello, Valente and Gentry will retain its practice in personal injury and medical malpractice, civil disputes, criminal defense, and family practice. But in addition to its real estate and estate planning practice, the firm is launching what it calls "The Social Firm."

"We do a lot of community work," said Valente. "We want to make it a bigger part of our firm."

The new division will offer discounted work for nonprofits and will discount or offer free service to people who can't afford an attorney.

"Access to legal services is a very big problem," said Valente. "Attorneys are expensive and legal aid is really specific about what they do."

Worthy cases can fall between the cracks, he said. The aim of The Social Firm is to catch some of those people and help them pursue claims.

"Someone who is poor or is disabled and gets hit by a car might not realize they can walk into a lawyer's office and get service on contingency," said Valente. "We do that."

Valente sees the acquisition of O'Connor's files and office space as proof of the commitment of Costello, Valente and Gentry to the Brattleboro area.

"This will build on work we've done, including helping the workers at the New England Center for Circus Arts, on prisoner advocacy, including with the ACLU, for the rights of the disabled, on behalf of children harmed while in DCF custody, and for those whose civil rights have been violated," said Valente.

"Our father loved practicing in Brattleboro for 50 years," O'Connor's children Kevin, Kate and Kerry said in a statement. "He'd be the first to raise a glass to friends writing a new chapter in the building's history."

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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