‘Lawyer’s lawyer’ Dale Faulkner reaches 60-year legal plateau
New London ― Dale Faulkner has a strikingly sharp memory for names, dates and details, a skill that has served him well through a 60-year career as what one colleague called “the lawyer’s lawyer.”
As he closes in on his 85th birthday this month, the Niantic resident is winding down a bit but still active in his law firm Faulkner & Graves, though he doesn’t try cases in court anymore, spending most of his time on depositions and arbitration work due to some hearing loss. He has been known over the years as a personal injury lawyer, mostly on the side of plaintiffs hurt in accidents, and he’s been named consistently over the years on all the Best Lawyers and Top Attorneys lists.
“I’ve tried a lot of cases,” Faulkner said last month during an interview at his Montauk Avenue law offices, where accolades dot the walls. “A case doesn’t have to be spectacular to be meaningful. It doesn’t have to be a victory to be remembered. Sometimes you learn more by losing a case.”
He remembered one product liability case that pitted his client against General Motors and Mallon Chevrolet in which he and his law partner at the time, Tom Boyce, were at mid-trial when Faulkner’s wife, Patricia, went into labor. Faulkner had been cross-examining a key witness the day before and asked Boyce to get Judge Michael P. Shea to delay the trial until he could get there after the last of his five children, Colleen, was born.
Shea, known as a stickler for trials staying on track, would have none of it, and when Faulkner arrived in court at 10:35 a.m., less than an hour and a half after the birth of his daughter, he found Boyce had been forced to continue the cross-examination without him. They ended up losing the trial, though Faulkner said Boyce’s cross-exam wasn’t the reason.
“It was a difficult case,” he said.
Despite his being annoyed at Judge Shea, the two went on to become good friends. Shea would often appear at classes to talk about legal issues during the 22 years Faulkner spent teaching law courses at night at the University of Connecticut.
“He was a trial lawyer in the true sense of the word,” Boyce said in a phone interview. “He tried all different kinds of cases with great success. He was an innovator.”
Faulkner spent his first year out of UConn law school as a law clerk in Hartford’s federal court before arriving in New London in August 1964 for an interview at Suisman & Shapiro, which at that time was known as the Jewish law firm (Faulkner is Catholic). Still, he hit it off with Charlie Suisman and Max Shapiro, the two partners.
Before he could return home to Rocky Hill, the phone rang at his house, and his wife picked it up.
“Honey, we want him,” Shapiro told her without any introduction.
“From that moment on it was a go,” Faulkner chuckled.
Two weeks after he joined the firm, another attorney there, Jim Brennan, dropped a stack of file folders on Faulkner’s desk and told him “These are your ones,” he recalled, and they were all personal injury cases.
He never needed to be given cases after that. He found his own without further help. And, for a 10-year period he did work on both defense and plaintiff cases.
“I wanted to be in the court as much as I could,” he said. “I wanted to have my name on both sides of the (docket).”
Reflecting on his years in practice, he said one of the biggest changes he’s seen is the increase of serious crime in the area, necessitating an expansion of the court system to handle the case flow as more judges and prosecutors have been added. Early in his career, there was only one Superior Court judge per term working in New London; now there are at least three working “around the clock,” he said.
Another big change has been the exponential increase of female lawyers. In his graduating class of 40 or 50 at UConn, he had seen only one woman, so there was a bit of an adjustment period as all-male law firms made spaces for their female counterparts.
“Some of the judges particularly, because they were older, were less than professional,” Faulkner said. “They treated them differently.”
In 1964, he said, there was only one practicing female attorney in New London, Antoinette Loiacono Dupont, who would go on to become chief judge of the state Appellate Court. But in his law school classes, Faulkner found that some of his best students were women.
“They have more than proved themselves,” he said.
In fact, his current law partner, Shelley Graves, is a woman who started at his firm in 1993, working her way up to partner. She, along with Faulkner’s son Brendan (also an attorney), helps him regularly update the Connecticut Trial Evidence Notebook that he first wrote years ago and is still considered a key teaching tool for practicing attorneys.
“His love for the law is infectious,” Graves said. “You’re uplifted by his enthusiasm for what he is doing.”
Dado Coric, who has practiced law in New London County for decades, called Faulkner “a great litigator” who is “very knowledgeable in his field.” He also called Faulkner a “great guy,” “larger than life” and a “tough adversary,” though he never worked on a case directly opposed to him.
Graves, like others, emphasized that Faulkner was always a gentleman in court and a true helper for other lawyers or those considering the law who were in need of advice. He gave many talks about legal issues statewide, offered advice on ethical issues and once served on the governor’s selection committee for judicial appointments. He also has argued several cases in front of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
“Opposing counsels ― win, lose or draw ― looked forward to their next case with him,“ Graves said. ”He has a way of connecting with everyone and elevating what we do as lawyers.“
Former law partner Boyce said Faulkner worked hard to develop real relationships with his clients, who came from all walks of life, based on mutual respect. One client made him a quilt from the hospital gown she’d worn after an accident, and the gift was displayed in the law office for a number of years, he said.
“A lot of personal injury lawyers would see clients in the beginning and then their staff would take over,” Boyce recalled. “Dale would see people in his office all the time.”
Faulkner said he recognized that people who had just been injured on the job or in car accidents were still raw from the trauma.
“You see people at their worst when you see people like we do,” he said. “I remember the people more than the victories.”
Faulkner credited Max Shapiro, one of the men who hired him nearly 60 years ago, with this insight: “You gotta get to know these people. Do you like him? Because if you don’t, how the hell are you going to get six jurors to like him?”
Perhaps Faulkner also enjoyed people’s stories of loss and heartache, which no doubt could be gripping. He did, after all, gravitate from rock ‘n’ roll to country music just for that reason: “Country songs tell a story.”
Surprisingly, Faulkner couldn’t recall what other lawyers might conjure up easily: their biggest case ― the one that generated the most substantial jury award. But this wasn’t a surprise to Graves, who said they both have a similar view of the law: “It’s not about the numbers; it’s about doing the best for that person. Every case is different.”
One thing Faulkner had been known for before a health scare 25 years ago was his chain smoking (he clearly recalls Feb. 7, 1998, as the last time he smoked, right after winning a settlement with Dominion and being rushed to the hospital hours later, unable to breathe). But after cancer treatments for a tumor in his leg cost him months of time out of the courtroom, he reformed and became health-conscious.
“The treatment almost killed me,” Faulkner said. “It was much worse than the illness.”
Faulkner, who grew up in New Haven and went to undergraduate school at Providence College, started his own law firm in 1986 when he and Boyce left Suisman Shapiro. Boyce left the practice in 2010, he said, as the types of cases he was getting diverged from personal injury to mostly medical malpractice. He has since retired.
But Faulkner soldiers on, spending much of his time on trial preparation and on an annual review of tort cases he does for the legal community that analyzes significant decisions in Connecticut during the calendar year.
As the practice of law becomes “increasingly uncivil,” as Boyce said, Faulkner remains “the ultimate gentleman,” a man whose word could always be counted on.
“Some guys just love it,” Boyce said of Faulkner’s flirtation with the law. “He’s one of those guys who is happy to be in it.”
“It’s a blessing to do what I do,” Faulkner said.
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