Brothers in Law

In more than one way

by Phyl Newbeck

little_and_cicchetti0819Tom Little (right) and Bert Cicchetti, law partners in Burlington since 1987. Their influence at many levels has left Vermont a better place.

Thomas A. Little and Albert A. Cicchetti have been law partners since 1987, but that’s not all the two men have in common. Cicchetti is married to Little’s sister, and the two men have both done work for the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont and served on municipal boards in their home towns: Shelburne for Little and Burlington for Cicchetti.

A native Vermonter, Little grew up in Burlington. His father ran the printing company George Little Press, but also found time for public service as a member of the Burlington Board of Aldermen, the Vermont House of Representatives, and the Vermont Senate. Little’s mother was the primary caregiver, but in her 50s, she became active in her community, serving on the Burlington Design Review Board and the Planning Commission.

Little majored in philosophy at Bowdoin College, graduating magna cum laude in 1976. “During college I wasn’t developing any career goals or aspirations,” he admits. “I liked what I was studying but my advisor cautioned against graduate school in philosophy.”

Little’s father had his own suggestions. “He was strategic,” Little says. “First he suggested I take the LSATs. When I did, he floated the idea that I just apply to law schools to see if I would get in. I got accepted, and since I had nothing else planned, I went to law school.”

Little earned his J.D. from Cornell University in 1979. He spent a year clerking for the Hon. Albert W. Coffrin Jr., Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont. He had met and married Susan Margaret Keelty through mutual friends after his first year of law school, when they discovered they had gone to Sunday School together. They were expecting a child.

During the summers between law school semesters, Little had worked for the firm that now bears his name, and joined it when his clerkship was complete, planning to spend five years practicing law to see if the profession was a good fit.

Cicchetti’s path to what is now Little & Cicchetti had a few more twists and turns. His father was a laborer and his mother, a homemaker. He grew up in the Bronx and Westchester and earned his undergraduate degree in English Literature at St. Lawrence University. From there, he went to law school at Pace University where he served on the editorial board of the law review.

He practiced for five years with the Westchester firm of Hyman & Gilbert, where he was introduced to estate planning. He had married Little’s sister, Margaret, whom he’d met at St. Lawrence, and they decided to move to her home state. Initially, Cicchetti worked in Montpelier with David Wilson, the state’s first lobbyist for hire, but in 1987 he moved north and joined Little at his Burlington-based firm.

Although the two men have different areas of expertise, there is some overlap. Cicchetti specializes in estate planning. “I had a lot of accounting courses at St. Lawrence,” he says, “and I was good with numbers and did well with tax courses. To be honest, I also saw it as a growth niche: baby boomers are getting old and need estate planning.” Cicchetti’s work has branched into other areas as a result of his relationship with his clients, many of whom have achieved their wealth through small businesses.

“I started getting involved with the businesses my clients owned,” he says. One manufacturing company in St. Albans with which he worked purchased an interest in a British company named Anderman Ceramics. Cicchetti now serves on that board and uses board meetings as a springboard for vacations with his wife. “Estate planners have one of the highest levels of job satisfaction in law,” he says. “We help people and we save them money.”

When Aline Gadue Stirling became president of Gadue Dry Cleaning after her father, Mark’s, retirement, one decision she didn’t have to make was about hiring a lawyer. Cicchetti had been the family’s lawyer for both personal and professional work for 25 years. “Bert helped us buy our first home and write our wills,” Gadue says. “He has been with us through personal and professional joys and crises with a steady hand.”

One thing Gadue values is Cicchetti’s ability to say no. “I have always known I could trust his advice,” Gadue says, “because he would never tell me just what I wanted to hear but rather what I needed to hear.”

When Little started work at the firm, he had no area of specialization. “When you show up to work on your first day, you work on the files you are given,” he says. “If you start out saying you want to focus on a narrow area of law, you might not be very busy, so I did a little bit of everything.”

Like Cicchetti, he found that working on one issue for a client could build a relationship that led to being hired for other things. “The personal relationship and trust between a lawyer and a client are the most important part of the work in both good times and bad,” he says. These days, Little’s primary work is as general counsel for Vermont Student Assistance Corp., which consumes most of his day-to-day responsibilities.

One thing the two men have in common is their dedication to the Vermont Episcopal Diocese. Cicchetti was raised Roman Catholic, but the Littles were Episcopalian, so he switched when he and Margaret moved to Vermont.

He has volunteered at both the cathedral and diocese level and is currently co-chairing the committee to find the next dean. Little is the chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, which translates to being the bishop’s lawyer.

Bishop Thomas Ely described Little as “the most gracious, wise, thoughtful, and caring a colleague a bishop could ask for. He’s involved in so many things and he does them graciously and on a pro bono basis. It’s been a great relationship.” Ely also had great praise for the way Little goes about his work. “He has a capacity to do all these things in a quiet, low-demeanor way that’s been a gift to the wider Episcopalian church, as well.We’ve been through some challenging times together and I’ve never had anything but great confidence in Tom.”

The two men say that Cicchetti’s marriage to Little’s sister does not interfere with their working relationship. “We compartmentalize things in an appropriate way,” Little says. Margaret Little Cicchetti works at the gift shop of the Shelburne Museum. Little’s wife, Susan, is retired from her job teaching English as a second language in the International Students Program at St. Michael’s College and running the summer foreign student program.

Little’s hobbies are golf, cross-country skiing, and reading about Vermont history. Cicchetti has also recently taken up golf after he and his wife downsized and moved next door to the Burlington Country Club, but his handicap is at least seven strokes higher than Little’s, and they don’t play together. “It gets me away from my desk,” he says. Cicchetti also likes getting out on the lake from his camp on Coates Island.

Both men have been involved in municipal activities and served on the boards of area nonprofits. Cicchetti’s first volunteer effort was on the board of the Burlington Jazz Festival, and he followed that up with work with Little for the Ethan Allen Club. He also served on the Burlington Development Review Board. “That was fun,” he says, “because that side of my brain never got a lot of exercise.”

In the summer of 1991, one of the two people who represented what was then a two-person Shelburne/Charlotte legislative district resigned. Little threw his hat into the ring and was appointed by the Dean administration to finish the term. He was subsequently re-elected five times. “I see some clear similarities between the work I do as a lawyer and the Legislature, in that it is a form of problem-solving or problem-avoidance,” Little says. “Legislators need to be good listeners.”

Little is probably best known for the work he did on civil unions as a member of the Statehouse. “As challenging as that was for me and the other legislators,” he says, “sight should not be lost of the gay and lesbian Vermonters who had been suffering for generations without these legal benefits.” An earlier bill of which he is equally proud was one that opened up adoption to same-sex couples, and he credits the conflicts over that bill with helping him better handle the vitriol that arose during the civil union debate.

Little spent a decade on the Shelburne Zoning Board of Adjustment, the last five years as chair. He stepped down when he was elected to the House, but after retiring from the Legislature, he ran for town moderator, a position he continues to hold.

He has served on the District 4 Environmental Commission since 2003 and the boards of Converse Home; Vermont Center for the Book; ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain; and the Snelling Center for Government. “What I absorbed from my parents is that we have an obligation to make this earth a better place and try to help our communities,” he says.

“The more people can give back, the better our communities. Vermont is on a scale where public service and volunteering are more accessible and more enjoyable.” •