LACONIA — "One hundred years is not common," said Bob Diettz, partner at Normandin, Cheney & O'Neil, PLLC, which has stood among the premier law firms in the Lakes Region for the past century. The longevity of the firm reflects a skein of strong family ties and a close relationship with Laconia Savings Bank (now Bank of New Hampshire) that together have run throughout its history.
F.E. Normandin began the practice in 1914 in rented space he shared with with a brother, Armand, and sister, Alice, who together pursued a medical practice. In 1937, F.E. Normandin was joined by his nephew, 19 years his junior, F.A. Normandin, practicing in the Normandin Block — originally the Avery Block — which was razed to make space for Stewart Park during urban renewal. The Normandin Block was directly across the Winnipesaukee River from the offices of Laconia Savings Bank, which would provide the firm with a steady flow of business for much of its history.
That same year F.E. Normandin successfully defended Lewis Wilkinson, a local undertaker, against a suit brought in federal court by a New York advertising agency charging that Wilkinson used copyrighted material to advertise in the Laconia Evening Citizen without authorization. Normandin claimed Wilkinson was not informed the materials protected and that the mark, designated them as protected, could not be identified with the naked eye.
Although the firm is not known for criminal defense, in 1947 the Normandins took part in a significant case made memorable for resonating in the pages of "Peyton Place," the best-seling novel by Grace Metalious. Barbara Roberts, then 20, shot and killed her father four days before Christmas in 1946 and with her teenage brother, William, buried the body in the barnyard of their Gilmanton farm. After Roberts pled guilty to second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison, Ben Bradlee, later editor of the Washington Post but then a reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News, found that the father had regularly abused his daughter for years, the Normandins as defense counsel persuaded the state to change the charge to manslaughter, reducing her sentence to months rather than years.
In 1948 Thomas Cheney, Jr., whose father served as New Hampshire Attorney General, joined the firm and four years later the triumvirate became complete with the addition of A. Gerard O'Neil, a nephew of F.E. Normandin. In 1955, F.E. Normandin's son Paul joined his father and two years later his sister Margaret "Peg" Normandin, came aboard as a title examiner, a position she held for more than 50 years.
While F.A. Normandin was a staunch Democrat and a leading figure in city politics, the firm rose to political prominence in the 1960s as one of several epicenters of the Democratic ascendancy in Laconia. Paul was a delegate for John F. Kennedy when captured the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 and was rewarded with an appointment as Assistant United States Attorney for New Hampshire, a post he held from 1961 to 1965.
In 1962, Thomas J. McIntyre won a special election to complete the unexpired term of Republican Styles Bridges in the United States Senate, becoming the first Democrat elected to the Senate in New Hampshire in 30 years. McIntyre, who had practiced as a sole practitioner, become an associate of the firm in 1963 and was twice re-elected to the Senate.
Meanwhile, the firm represented Alfred Rosenblatt, a columnist at the Laconia Evening Citizen, in a liable suit brought by Fritzie Baer, the champion of motorcycling in the Lakes Region, which was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court. Baer, managed the Gunstock Recreational Area from 1950 until 1959 when the Belknap County Commissioners terminated his contract and established the Gunstock Area Commission. In s column published in 1960, Rosenblatt noted that since the change Gunstock's financial performance improved "literally hundreds of percent better" and asked "what happened to all the money last year? and every other year?"
Baer sued, claiming the column alleged mismanagement, even criminal conduct. A jury in Belknap County Superior Court agreed and awarded Baer damages and the decision was upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The newspaper appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. Earlier the court had ruled that freedom to criticize public officials could not be hindered unless it could be proven that the criticisms were made with "actual malice".
When the senior Normandins — F.E. and F.A. — both passed away in 1967 and Cheney died three years later, leadership passed to O'Neil, and Paul Normandin.
Paul Normandin had an active trial practice for many years before turning his energies estate planning and probate, real estate and commercial law. He also found time to serve in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, on the Laconia City Council and Gunstock Area Commission, all the while contributing his time and talent to any number of civic and service organizations.Like his father, who served as president of Laconia Savings Bank, Normandin became a corporator and trustee of the bank before serving 17 years as chairman of the board. He also was a director of the Citizen Publishing Company.
With Normandin's passing earlier this year the family tradition fell to the O'Neils. In 1980, O'Neil was joined by his son Jerry O'Neil, Jr., whose daughter Kaitlin is the newest addition to the team.
"It was a family firm and still is a family firm," said Dietz, who interned with the firm while in law school, returned after graduation and came to stay in 1979 after serving in the United States Air Force and working at the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security.
"We have always pursued the general practice of law," Dietz said, explaining that as young attorneys have joined the firm they have been exposed to all aspects of the law. "We're regimented," he noted. "We rely on people to do their own work, to be responsible and industrious." He stressed that "the firm has enjoyed many years of continuity" with little turnover in personnel. "We've always tried to stay reasonably small," Dietz said, adding that the firm has seven attorneys, each steeped in the law yet with a more specialized niche.
For instance, Dietz heads the commercial practice, which serves as general counsel to more than 220 businesses of all types and sizes both inside and outside the state. O'Neil leads the firm's litigation team, which includes his fellow partner Jim Lafrance, while maintaining a personal injury practice. Regina Nadeau, who joined the firm in 1996, handles all aspects of real estate law — property transactions, environmental regulation, local permitting and development projects. development and environmental regulation. Together with Donna Depoian and Tim O'Brien, Dietz handles estate planning, along with the administration of probate and trust, a mainstay of the firm's practice since it was founded in 1914. Family law, along with criminal cases and civil rights, is the primary preserve of William Woodbury.
Dietz said that as lawyering has grown more competitive and less collegial, success depends more than ever on relationships that breed relationships. As Normandin, Cheney & O'Neil enters its second century it has a wealth of professional continuity and settled relationships to draw on.