Partners in law and in life
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Carole Obuchowski joined her husband, Joe, in law practice in 2000, shortly after she was admitted to the bar at age 53. Their Burlington practice, Joseph F. Obuchowski & Associates, handles, in Joe’s words, “only nice stuff.”
“Law partnerships are kind of like marriages,” quips Carole Obuchowski. “You don’t know what you’re doing till you’ve had a couple of them.”
To be clear, she’s not describing her own marriage to her law partner and husband, Joe Obuchowski. They were married in 1969 and have practiced together at Joseph F. Obuchowski & Associates LLP in Burlington since 2000, shortly after Carole was admitted to the bar at age 53.
In conversation, they appear to be perfect foils for each other. Joe, a master of irony, is quick to throw out one-liners, and Carole might pick up the story or urge him on with relish, or restate his words in a more sober manner. However it happens, it’s a fun conversation.
“Joe and Carole are complementary to each other,” says Rep. Joan Lenes, Chittenden 5-2, who has known them for decades as part of the Shelburne community. “They are very, very caring, down-to-earth, conscientious people, with strengths in areas that enhance their business together, and with different kinds of humor that are just amazing.”
“Joe’s an expert in procedure,” says Carole, who claims to enjoy research. “Certain parts of litigation I really, really like, and I like learning new things all the time — I realize this sounds so cliché. We have a case that deals with the UCC (Uniform Commercial Code), and Joe said we have to do some research, and I said, ‘OK, now I’m going to learn about the UCC.’ It forces you to go into learning things you wouldn’t normally know, and it’s important.”
“What we are now,” says Joe, “is basically your small white-shoe firm. We don’t do that super-sexy stuff. No criminal, no divorce, no bankruptcy, but nice stuff that people need.” “Nice stuff” includes estate planning, business law, and land use, which a lot of their litigation involves.
“People fight over land: boundary disputes, trees, sales price,” says Carole. “People in Vermont have many, many disputes over land.”
Joe jumps in with a story — he has a passel of them honed over the years since beginning to practice in 1974. This one is about the late Wynn Underwood, a former Vermont Supreme Court justice.
“He was the last guy who had a spittoon in court,” says Joe. “In his later years, he moved into a condo down at Red Rocks. He was a deer hunter. One year he brought home a deer and hung it on community property in Red Rocks.”
Following an uproar, “like a good Vermont lawyer, he said, ‘Show me where it says I can’t do that.’ They proceeded to amend the bylaws.”
The Obuchowskis are, Joe says, “a mixture of Vermont: She’s the person from New York City, like those salsa commercials, and I’m the card-carrying native. When I was 6 I had my first .22, and my first BB gun when I was 3.”
Carole grew up in Queens, the daughter of a homemaker and a certified public accountant. Joe hails from Bellows Falls, where his father worked in the paper mills. He was high school class valedictorian and applied to several colleges. He chose Cornell, where his cousin was studying for his master’s degree.
He started out, “like most of my crew,” in premed, but they were annoyed by horseplay in the chemistry labs. “So we sat down one year and said, What major needs the least number of hours? We found government.”
“Government” is Cornell’s name for political science. Everyone who was a government major went to law school, Joe says.
He and Carole met at Cornell. She was a design major and graduated in 1968, “a year before Joe because I skipped eighth grade,” she says. While Joe was finishing up, she headed to Boston University to study law but left after a semester. She found a job in finance, where she worked until Joe graduated.
They married in 1969, and when Joe was accepted at Columbia Law School, they moved to Manhattan. Carole worked a few jobs, the best of which, she says, was as an assistant law librarian at General Motors. “It was right across from the Plaza Hotel and had all these windows overlooking Central Park. It was cool.”
After earning his law degree in 1972, Joe landed a job working for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and they moved to Vermont. He did this for a year, “working with one committee at the Legislature that had people who went on to become Madeleine Kunin and Jim Douglas,” he says. “A nice committee.”
After a clerkship with Jeffords & Rice in Montpelier, he entered private practice in 1974, and worked for several firms doing, largely, work for municipalities.
Carole earned her master’s degree in political science at The University of Vermont, having their first child in the process. From 1977 to 1985, she had what she calls one of her best job experiences: teaching, as an adjunct professor, political science 21, UVM’s introductory course on the American political system.
She had several jobs along the way — fund-raising for the Champlain Association for Retarded Citizens; substitute teaching in the school systems after earning certification to teach both social studies and math; paralegal work; teaching at St. Michael’s College — until 1991, when she was hired by Green Mountain Power in its legal department.
Carole decided to read the law, something only possible in California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. She asked two of the lawyers at Green Mountain Power to sponsor her, but the state decided she would need only one. “One of the main reasons I did it is that I wasn’t going to commute to Royalton. You can easily access the education and not travel.”
After Carole was admitted to the bar in 2000, she and Joe decided to work together.
“The work changes absolutely every day, which is one of the really nice things about being in business for yourself,” she says. “It’s phone calls, pumping out paper, times when we sit down and do actual research, but most of the time it is phone calls and strategy talks and making sure that the documents are in order.”
“Doing municipal stuff I would read Section B of the Free Press and know what my day was going to be,” says Joe. “Making paper is the easiest way to say it: drafting stuff, then analyzing stuff — if they do that, then we’ll do this.”
Technology has had a big impact on the way business is conducted. “Research is much easier,” Carole says. “We email or scan just about everything and get things to other attorneys so much quicker. When I was working for Green Mountain Power, I literally had to run around finding people who would race down I-89 to Montpelier to get something hand-delivered to Mrs. Hudson, the clerk at the Public Service Board, before she closed the door promptly at 4:30. I once drove 80 miles an hour to get something there for a hearing.”
When they’re not practicing law, the Obuchowskis have kept busy with community service. Joe taught business law at Champlain College for 25 years and sits on the Vermont Law School’s moot court. Carole was a justice of the peace from 1977 to ’79 and on the Shelburne Board of Civil Authority. Joe served seven and a half years on the Champlain Valley Union board of directors, and was on the credential committee for Fire District 1. Both have been Rotarians, in different clubs.
To relax, Joe is a fly-fisherman, does a bit of hunting and ice fishing, and keeps track of the horses at Saratoga.
Before his vision in one eye deteriorated, Jim Wick of Wick & Maddocks Law Offices in Burlington and Essex Junction hunted deer with Joe for years. They remain ice fishing companions.
“His wife doesn’t participate because she’s smarter than all of us,” says Wick. “Joe and I and my wife are particularly avid. Joe’s always willing to go out on the ice first to test for safety.”
Occasionally when a business conflict arises — for example, says Wick, “if I have a conflict with representing both seller and buyer, and you can’t do that under our ethics rules — Joe is very good about taking either the buyer or seller. And we’re social friends. Usually we will attend some of those events at the Flynn together. Or typically, we’ll do one opera down in Lebanon, N.H. We feel as painful as they are, somebody’s got to attend,” he quips.
Joe, a self-confessed packrat, is a coin collector. Carole is an artist — her lovely oils hang in their offices — and, according to Joe, an excellent cook. “Sometimes we’ll put together something exotic,” he says.
Turning serious, Joe praises the quality of law work in Vermont, which he says “has always been extraordinarily high. “Being a one-horse location, the quality of lawyers has always been top flight, and amazingly so.
“People by and large are good people,” he adds, citing a recent case where a client had been diagnosed with a very serious illness. “We had to go to the judge and said, ‘We have a bad situation; can we put this on hold?’ And everybody said, ‘Yeah, that’s OK.’ And opposing said, ‘When I was in [this big town] this wouldn’t have happened.’ So the humility is still there, that people try to be human.” •