Aiming to Pleas

A neighborhood lawyer Vermont-style

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

blais_lead_185_fmtA general law practitioner, attorney Norman Blais considers himself a throwback. He’s been in solo practice since the ’90s, working from a historic Burlington residence on College Street, known affectionately as The Lawyer Barn, where he leases space to seven other attorneys.

Last year, at 61, Norman Blais ran for and won a seat on the Burlington City Council. His decision to run was spurred by the death, in 2006, of a fellow lawyer.

“When Hilton Wick died,” says Blais, “his obituary went on for paragraph after paragraph after paragraph, listing his accomplishments, his community service. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something for my obituary.” That was why, in 2010, when he learned that Mary Kehoe, a Ward 6 councillor, was not running, he decided to go for it.

It’s not as though Blais hasn’t had a life worth reading about. He once appeared on the Phil Donahue Show with his then-partner Mark Keller, to discuss a case they had taken (and won), representing a Bennington woman charged with murdering her child.

“It was a really tough case for us, because it was a case where the client was having trouble finding a lawyer because of the gruesome details,” says Blais. “The baby was 6 years old, and she shot it in the chest, but then turned around and shot herself, and missed her heart by about an inch.”

The woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity because of postpartum depression. “That developed to be one of the premier textbook cases for postpartum depression and is now taught at Harvard Medical School,” Blais says. “It’s the one I take most pride in.”

“I find that with every client who walks through the door, I learn something more about human behavior.”

—Norman Blais

He also cites it as the most difficult case he ever had. “I think one of the reasons I take pride in the outcome was you had to confront the personal feelings you have about the tragic nature of the outcome and rise above that and deal with it in a professional manner.”

Blais also prides himself on being a solo general practitioner, confessing to be a member of a dying breed — “a throwback to how lawyers used to be.” He has a fairly active personal injury, divorce, and criminal case load, and a diverse number of business clients, he says, adding that he tends to get involved more in cases that are likely to end up in court.

Hilton Wick’s obituary might not have been the only inspiration Blais had for seeking public office. A Vermonter through and through, he was born and raised in Derby Line, where his father, Ben Blais, worked in a tap and die factory for 40 years. After his retirement, he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives and served several terms.

Blais studied political science at the University of Vermont, followed by law school at St. Louis University, graduating in 1976.

His first job out of law school was “a great job,” he says. “I worked for a year as a law clerk for the Vermont Supreme Court — a wonderful opportunity for me.” At the end of that year, he was hired as deputy state’s attorney for Chittenden County, and worked as a prosecutor for five to six years.

Back then, he says, the expected tenure of a deputy state’s attorney was to work four to five years and then go into private practice. “It wasn’t a career slot as it is now for many of the prosecutors. And that’s what I did: I hung up a shingle.”

It wasn’t long before he was joined by a partner, John Cain, who had been in private practice in Burlington, and about two years on, by Keller, who joined following a position as state’s attorney. A couple of years further along, and Susan Fowler, now the probate judge, joined the practice, making the firm Blais, Cain, Keller & Fowler.

The firm lasted about five years, until Fowler became probate judge and Keller was named a trial judge, says Blais with a grin, “so both went into semi-retirement, if you would; by becoming judges, they didn’t have to work as hard.”

It wasn’t long before Cain left to practice with John Fitzpatrick, leaving Blais in solo practice, which he’s continued since the mid 1990s.

He’s also continued practicing from the same location, a large and graceful old building at 289 College St. that was once the home of J. Boone Wilson, at one time the law partner of Phil Hoff. “If you talk to lawyers of the previous generation, you’ll learn that Boone was a legend in his own time,” says Blais. “When new lawyers joined the firm — and they were all men in those days — they would have to live for a year in an apartment out back so that Boone could determine if they were upstanding young men.”

Blais bought the building with his partners, and they relinquished their interest in the building as each one left the partnership. It is now owned solely by Blais and Michael O’Brien, who has a real estate appraisal business.

The building has a prominent place in Burlington legal circles. Seven other solo practitioners rent office space from Blais, and although there’s no formal affiliation, “there’s a really good camaraderie that takes place,” he says. It is referred to in certain circles as The Lawyer Barn.

“It’s a very engaging place to be, because for the most part, we’re friendly toward one another. It’s a very good atmosphere for exchanging ideas and talking about cases; strategizing how to handle cases.” Occasionally lawyers in the building have cases against one another, representing opposing parties, but despite that fact, Blais says, it’s a very cordial and collegial place to practice law.”

He praises the relationships among Vermont lawyers, particularly those in Chittenden County. “People are often surprised to hear that the collegiality of lawyers, even those involved in contested trial work, has remained very high. I’m speaking about what I hear from other lawyers, but I’m told that in more rural areas of the state, they’re finding more contention among lawyers. That may be because they’re fighting for a smaller pool of clients. But my experience is that the Chittenden County Bar, in addition to being very skilled and very competent, is also quite collegial.”

Ed Adrian, former deputy state’s attorney and current Burlington city councillor, thinks Blais deserves no small amount of credit for that fact. “I think I must have known him for about 14 years,” says Adrian. “I started as a young deputy state’s attorney up in Franklin County, and ran into Norm when he was a defense attorney on the other side of the table. It has always been a pleasure to deal with him.

“Norm brings a grounding air of calmness in everything he does that rubs off on other people. It has made the council meetings more productive and the city council Democrats more productive.”

Working with Blais is Darci Benoit, his assistant, whose office is out in the building’s reception area. “Darci is my lifeline,” he says. “She’s a wonderful employee; commutes every day from Swanton. I like to think she engages in that long commute because I’m such a great boss, but I’m not sure that’s the case.”

In addition to time with his life partner, Dawn Schmidt — an art teacher at Rice Memorial High School — and his two children from a prior marriage, much of Blais’ spare time these days is spent representing Ward 6.

“I love to read,” he says. “There are two to three open books on the night stand. I just finished the story about John Booth and his brother, and I’m having a wonderful time reading Stephen King’s book November 22, 1963. I just finished a book about Mickey Mantle.”

Even though he refers to being “in the twilight of my years,” Blais is nowhere near finished. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a lawyer. You hear a lot of people express either discouragement or dismay, and I certainly have had my bad days, but 35 years being a lawyer in Burlington has been fabulous. I can’t imagine being a lawyer in a better place.”

Should he decide to stop practicing law, there’s a lot left undone, he says. “I want to travel more; to learn more. I find that with every client who walks through the door, I learn something more about human behavior, and that will continue when I stop practicing.”

After a beat, he adds, “I’ll probably stop practicing when they stick me in the ground.”