Four-Part Harmony

This partnership has found a way to make beautiful music together

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

kohn-rath_establ_vert_138Roger Kohn, Eileen Blackwood, David Rath, and Beth Danon stand on the sidewalk in front of the old parsonage in Hinesburg that houses their law firm, Kohn Rath, Blackwood and Danon.

The old parsonage (circa 1856) on Main Street in Hinesburg hasn’t been the source of spiritual guidance for decades, but advice and comfort of another kind are still offered within its walls. From its comfortable rooms, the lawyers at Kohn Rath Blackwood & Danon minister to their clients’ needs.

The firm — a general civil practice — grew out of a 2009 merger of Kohn & Rath LLP and Blackwood & Danon PC. “We don’t do any criminal work or divorce,” says Roger Kohn, who opened the practice in 1974.

David Rath joined him in 1979. They moved to the old parsonage that same year. Other partners came and went, but the firm’s name remained Kohn & Rath until 2009, when Burlington lawyers Eileen Blackwood and Beth A. Danon merged with them.

Their fields have blended well, says Kohn. “Beth is doing mostly personal injury; Eileen does mostly employment law and school law, and they both represent a fair number of nonprofits. David does work for a fairly large number of local banks; and I do everything else — some personal injury, workers’ compensation, contracts, wills. I tend to take cases that intrigue me,” he says.

Kohn was born in New Jersey and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in physics in 1967, but decided he didn’t want a career in physics. So the paragraph now reads: Kohn was born in New Jersey and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in physics in 1967, but decided he didn’t want a career in physics.

He entered the University of Pennsylvania Law School and, in ’69, he married Miriam Adams, whom he’d known since high school. He graduated magna cum laude in 1971.

They chose Vermont as a place to live, says Kohn, because “we liked the country and I liked to ski.” He landed a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Bernard Leddy in Burlington.

He clerked for about a year, then found a job with Vermont Legal Aid. “All the names you now hear in state government were there at the time: Matt Katz, now a Superior Court judge; Michael Kupersmith, now a Superior Court judge; and John Dooley, now a Supreme Court justice.”

After about a year, he joined the Hinesburg practice of Rita Villa — “a traffic court judge now,” says Kohn. A year later, Villa left to care for her infant child. Kohn went solo and rented a room in the town hall.

Five years later, he was teaching a bar exam review course and announced to the class that he was seeking an associate. “I stepped back and kind of got mobbed by people wanting to interview for a job. David Rath was the one I hired.”

Rath had come to Vermont to ski. A native of the D.C. area, he grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., where his father was the vice director of the New York State Historical Association. He went to college at Dartmouth because of its rural nature and opportunities for outdoor recreation. “I passed through Vermont all the time in between home and college.”

The summer after graduation in 1972, he and his roommate rode bicycles across the country “because neither of us had jobs,” he says. Then he taught history and mathematics at a prep school in Millbrook, N.Y., for two years.

The lure of skiing was strong, though, and he left teaching to be a full-time professional ski patrolman at Sugarbush from 1974 to 1976. Vermont had its hooks in him.

Realizing that his lifestyle was not a good long-term career choice, Rath decided to study law at the Franklin Pierce Law Center (now the University of New Hampshire Law School). He graduated in 1979 and joined Kohn that fall. In 1981, he became a partner.

He was 45 when he met Michelle Sures, a Canadian native, through a friend. “I was a lifelong bachelor,” he says, laughing. “We met in 1995, got married in 1996, and had a daughter in 1997.

Over the years, associates and partners came and went. By 2008, Kohn and Rath were again the only lawyers in the office.

Serendipity had a hand in finding Blackwood and Danon. Adams, Kohn’s wife, is an established artist. “We went to an art opening in 2008,” he says, “and Beth was there. I’ve known both Beth and Eileen for a lot of years. I said, ‘If you know anybody who’s looking for a job, we’re in the market.’”

Danon said she and Blackwood had recently decided to seek a firm to join after practicing together for six years. “I said, ‘Wonderful!’ We have compatible practices, and decided to form a partnership of Kohn Rath Blackwood & Danon.”

Having grown up in Richmond, Va., Blackwood encountered Vermont while studying women and education in a special major at Dartmouth. The summer after graduation in 1980, she worked on a farm in Hartland.

“Vermont politically is more compatible with me than New Hampshire,” she says. “I just loved the area and I have cousins up here in the Burlington area.”

She taught for a year in Georgia and two years in Randolph Center. “While I was teaching, I decided to go to law school,” she says. She was accepted at Cornell and headed to Ithaca, N.Y.

After graduation, she landed a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Franklin Billings in Rutland, and a year later, in the fall of 1987, she went to work with Paul Frank & Collins in Burlington as an associate.

In ’92, she and Pamela Kraynak started Blackwood & Kraynak. Six years later, after Kraynak left the practice, Blackwood practiced alone until Danon joined her in 2002.

Danon was born in Chicago and moved to Rye, N.Y., when she was 14. “My mother imbued me with a strong sense of equality — equal rights for all. I’ve been politically active since I was 14 years old,” she says. “I got heavily involved in the Vietnam anti-war movement in New York City, then went to the anti-nuke movement, then to the women’s movement in domestic violence and rape.”

She entered New York University in 1972, but by 1976, had not accumulated enough credits in a major to graduate. For the next four years, she did development work in the theater, “and a lot of political activism,” she says.

Planning to go into social work, she returned to school part time in 1980 to study psychology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Hunter College, while working at a women’s shelter in Brooklyn. She graduated in 1984.

Recognizing Danon’s interest in social change, the dean of students suggested she consider the CUNY School of Law at Queens — a public interest law school — and the School of Social Work. Accepted at both, she says, “I chose the lawyer route.” She graduated in 1987 at age 33.

Her brother-in-law had died the year before in an automobile accident, and her sister, Burlington lawyer Mary Kehoe, begged her to apply for a clerkship in Vermont so she could be nearby.

Kehoe was then in Montpelier. Danon received a clerkship with Vermont Supreme Court Justice Frank G. Mahady, “but,” she says, “the funny thing is that by the time I got the clerkship, Mary had met her second husband and had moved to Burlington.”

Not surprisingly, Danon fell for Vermont. When the clerkship ended in 1988, she had hoped to find a job with Vermont Legal Aid, but the salary wasn’t enough to cover her student loan payments. She joined Mickenberg, Dunn, Sirotkin & Dorsch in Burlington.

A lot of the work at Mickenberg was public interest–related. One client she took over was the Burlington Community Land Trust, which she represented for years, along the way becoming quite adept in real estate law.

Named a partner in ’93, Danon practiced there until 2001, when she left to work for Vermont Protection & Advocacy doing mental health law, an area of particular interest. Unfortunately, during her short tenure, the organization changed executive directors twice. She was acting director for a while, “and by the time we got the new hire, I needed a hiatus.”

Danon and Blackwood had met through mutual friends and, as activists, encountered each other often. They decided to try working together. Danon joined Blackwood as an associate in 2003; they became partners in 2004; and merged with Kohn & Rath in 2009.

Like her partners, Danon finds opportunities for humor everywhere. Asked what she does in her spare time, she laughs heartily. “It’s hard to get away from work,” she says. “My work is like potato chips: You just want to keep doing it until you’re sick of it.” She is, though, passionate about hiking with her cockapoo, Lilly, who shares her office.

Danon dog-sits for friends and enjoys bike rides with family and friends. She visits New York, where her best friend still lives, several times a year. “I never had kids,” she says, “but I’m a very active aunt. I have a niece and nephew in Burlington, two nephews in Boston, and two nieces in Tacoma Park, Md.”

Outdoor activity beckons to all four partners.Kohn enjoys skiing — “usually at Mad River,” he says — where he skis every Thursday with a dedicated group from Hinesburg.

Rath was an adjunct professor of business law at St. Michael’s College for years and is vice chair of the Champlain Valley Union school board. Besides skiing, he is an elite masters bicycle racer with the Green Mountain Bike Club/Catamount race team and has a string of national and North American championships in his resume. His particular interest is a discipline called cyclocross. Most days year-round, instead of lunch, he dons his lycra and rides his bicycle. One morning a week in the winter, he and Sam Hoar, a Burlington lawyer, drive to Camels Hump for backcountry skiing.

Blackwood and her spouse, Lynn Goyette, a mental health counselor with a practice in Burlington, have a camp on the lake in North Hero. “I love to sail and kayak and bicycle and garden,” she says. “In wintertime, I try and get out and snowshoe or cross-country ski.”

In the ’90s, Blackwood taught at the University of Vermont and from 1993 through 2000, she coached women’s lacrosse at St. Michael’s College. She also officiated field hockey and lacrosse for several years.

A few years ago, after the death of Dick Hathaway, longtime fundraising auctioneer for the ACLU of Vermont, Blackwood and Goyette, decided to attend auctioneer school and become licensed. They now do charity auctions for nonprofits as their donation to those groups.

Of the firm, Blackwood says, “In some ways we’re very diverse — have different approaches and personalities. What we bring together is that we really like and enjoy one another.”

“David once told me,” says Kohn, “that a partnership is like a marriage: You’ve got to give a lot. I would say our guiding principle here is to give good legal advice.” •