Meet 6 of Delaware's 2018 Top Lawyers
From civil rights to constitutional law, these local attorneys are tackling big issues throughout the state.
"That's the beauty of our system. We can speak truth to power," says Stephen Neuberger, a civil rights attorney. //Photo by Luigi CiUFFetelli
Stephen J. Neuberger
A movie poster in Stephen Neuberger's previous office includes this quote, which nicely summarizes his attitude on protecting civil rights: "People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people."
If the sentiment seems pugnacious, so is the man.
"We're not supposed to be huddled in our home waiting for a SWAT team to kick down our door," he says. "That's the beauty of our system. We can speak truth to power."
Along with his father and law partner, Thomas, Stephen Neuberger has again and again sued powerful state agencies, often on behalf of their employees. Most recently, that included corrections officers working during a February 2017 prison inmate uprising in Smyrna.
Now, he's taking on the city's previous two mayors and fire chiefs on behalf of the firefighters from the 2016 fire at a Canby Park row home. He will represent the three who were injured and the estates of three who died.
He is arguing that the city's staffing practices amounted to a violation of their rights under the 14th Amendment, which protects the public from dangers that result from arbitrary government action.
He is attempting to show not only that these staffing decisions were arbitrary, but that they specifically slowed the fighting of the Canby Park fire and caused the firefighters' deaths and injuries.
Neuberger has a high standard to meet: He must show that the city's actions "shocked the conscience."
Neuberger's cases tend to share a theme: the arbitrary abuse of power.
"As a kid, I never liked bullies," he says. However, after watching the stress the profession inflicted on his father, he never wanted to be an attorney. But after hearing about the dim employment prospects for history graduates and working summers for a civil liberties nonprofit, he changed his mind.
As he neared graduation, his father offered to hire him as a paralegal at his office. The work turned out to appeal to him even more than his sense of justice.
"I enjoyed beating my head against the wall for hopeless causes," he says.
Victoria Petrone, a lawyer specializing in construction law, says being one of the relatively few women with construction experience has given her a more measured approach to her cases. //PHOTO BY LUIGI CIUFFETELLI
Victoria K. Petrone
When she was a civil engineer, Victoria Petrone found herself fascinated by the many relationships among builders, architects and others in the construction industry. So she started learning about contracts and, after rising into management, enforcing them.
Petrone decided to become an attorney and attended law school at night for four years, earning her degree in 2001. She joined Donald Logan in practice and they became partners in 2006.
Her engineering experience proved a natural fit.
"I speak their language. I lived it. I've done what they've done," Petrone says of her contracting, architectural and engineering clients.
The expertise is especially helpful in cases where she allows herself to be underestimated.
"It's especially shocking to adversaries that the person across the table, especially a female, knows more than they do," Petrone says. She says being one of the relatively few women with construction experience has given her a more measured approach.
"That doesn't mean I'm not aggressive on behalf of my clients. I've been effective because I can be reasonable."
Sometimes, that means putting ego aside to settle a case where a client doesn't believe they've done anything wrong in order to forgo costly legal expenses.
"Winning means getting the best deal for the client," she says.
Construction law includes the formation of companies, employment law and defense of claims, but it's largely about creating and enforcing the myriad contracts among the many players in a construction project.
"A construction site is a complicated area," she notes. "You've got an owner, engineer, architect, subcontractor, suppliers, rental equipment."
So when work is faulty, there are often complicated questions about who is to be held responsible and pay for the defective work.
Stucco, the popular exterior wall covering, has generated plenty of legal action since modern versions debuted about 15 years ago. At first, builders did not reliably include a place for water to drain, which can potentially lead to mold.
"Every case is a little different, and that's what makes it interesting," Petrone says.
Although bankers have gotten a bad rep following the 2008 financial crisis, banking law attorney Mark Purpura says Delaware is blessed to have really good people working at its banks and trust companies. //PHOTO BY LUIGI CIUFFETELLI
Many attorneys work with clients when something goes wrong. To be effective, Mark Purpura has to deeply understand the business of his banking clients so he can give them guidance to avoid trouble in the first place.
Banks are regularly scrutinized by regulators, he says, sometimes because wrongdoing is suspected.
"My goal is to have my clients never reach that point," says Purpura, who has been an attorney at Richards, Layton & Finger for about 20 years.
He was drawn to Delaware largely because of the financial institutions and practices created by the Financial Center Development Act, which made the state a hub for banks and sophisticated corporate lawyers to advise them.
Most of Purpura’s work concerns helping finance companies apply complex regulatory laws to their own firms. His close working relationships with clients are what Purpura enjoys most about banking law.
"Bankers have sort of a bad rap, especially after the financial crisis," he says. "But working with them every day, you see Delaware is blessed to have really good people working at its banks and trust companies."
Building back public trust lost during the financial crisis is a concern for the industry, he says.
"They certainly took a hit reputationally during the financial crisis, and I think they also realized they had to institute safeguards so that kind of thing won't happen again."
Delaware is a haven for trusts, in which assets are administered by a third party, in large part because of favorable state laws.
For example, so-called dynasty trusts in Delaware can last for years, passing wealth from generation to generation in a tax-advantaged manner.
That said, Purpura argues Delaware’s trust laws aren't lowering standards and creating a race to the bottom.
"Other states have adopted trust laws that are more lenient, but we're not going to sacrifice public policy" to attract business, he says.
Purpura believes Delaware is well-prepared to remain the gold standard in finance. For example, the University of Delaware has one of only two programs in the country that offer a minor in trust management.
"I like the side of law I'm on," says Susan D'alonzo ament, a personal injury law attorney. "At the end of my cases, my client usually hugs me." //PHOTO BY LUIGI CIUFFETELLI
Susan D'Alonzo Ament
Personal injury law
Susan Ament's two primary areas of practice—workers' compensation and injuries caused by vehicle collision—are also two of the most misunderstood.
When injured in a car accident or on the job, victims too often learn from Ament that insurance won't cover the injuries or they don't get the workers' compensation benefits they're expecting.
It's tough to fault victims in these cases; workers' compensation is quite complicated, and even a person's own car insurance can be confusing. What many people know as "full coverage," referred to in Delaware law as "personal injury protection," is often inadequate when the time comes.
Though it pays for lost wages and medical bills regardless of who is at fault, this coverage can be exhausted quickly. The minimum in Delaware is $15,000, though Ament says drivers need much more to be protected in the event of a serious injury.
Often, proving a client's case to a jury or insurance company means describing how the accident has changed the victim's life. One client who was struck by a vehicle lost the ability to compete in marathons; another, a young mother, could no longer hold her baby.
"When you see the effects on a person's life, it's really heartbreaking," says Ament, a partner with Morris James LLP for 18 years.
Workers' compensation can be even more complicated. Though many people initially believe they'll receive a lump sum for pain and suffering, there are actually about seven different kinds of benefits, and none are for pain and suffering.
Her biggest pieces of advice: Notify your employer that an injury occurred, request medical services and consult with an attorney to learn about the benefits you're entitled to.
And, if you're in the middle of a workers' compensation case, don't post on social media about your case.
Helping victims get their life back is the most rewarding part of Ament's job.
"I like the side of the law that I'm on. At the end of my cases, my clients usually hug me."
"Constitutional law makes me feel as if I am really benefiting society in some small way," says David L. Finger, a constitutional law attorney. //PHOTO BY LUIGI CIUFFETELLI
David L. Finger
David Finger's father was a corporate lawyer who also argued cases for The News Journal, while his mother is a Holocaust survivor.
"That's taught me about the dangers of the abuse of government power," the Wilmington attorney says.
These abuses tend to start small. "More often than not, rights are eroded gradually around the edges," he says. "On the edges are the battlefields."
His current battlefield is a case about whether Delaware's judges are to be selected based on their political affiliation, as the state's constitution requires.
Some government appointees need a political affiliation to do their job, but judges are supposed to be independent of politics, he says. Finger won the case in district court, though it may be in appeals court at least through the end of the year.
An attorney for 30 years, five of them with the two-attorney firm Finger & Slanina, LLC Finger practices in corporate and commercial litigation, bankruptcy, intellectual property, and First Amendment and media law.
"I'm at a small firm and have the luxury of doing some cases that I might not be able to do in a larger firm," he says.
Another case Finger chose, in 2011, concerned a Delaware law allowing corporations to use the courts to settle their disputes in secret proceedings. Intended as a way to make Delaware more business-friendly, the law essentially created two sets of rules, he says, one private and one public.
"You don't know who the parties are, you don't know what the rulings are and whether they're consistent or inconsistent with public law," he says. "It would cause people to wonder if different standards were applied."
Finger prevailed in the case in 2012, and the private arbitration courts were abolished.
"Constitutional law makes me feel as if I am really benefiting society in some small way," he says.
Meanwhile, as the country becomes more partisan, questions of censorship and speech are likely to remain at the forefront. His advice, especially when the government is on your side, is to remember the consequences of government overreach.
"Everybody likes to exercise supreme power against things they don't like."
"No two cases are ever the same, and it requires creativity in thinking about how to attack the problem," says John. W. Paradee, a land use lawyer.// PHOTO BY LUIGI CIUFFETELLI
John W. Paradee
As an attorney who practices land use and zoning law in Kent and Sussex counties, John Paradee works with builders throughout the development of a property, from the purchase of land to government approvals to contracts with builders.
Much of his effort, though, is directed at that middle step—securing regulatory approvals from local, state and federal authorities. His task often is to persuade courts that his client's plan for a particular site is in keeping with the codes and laws around how land can be used.
"You have to read, understand and apply that particular code to your circumstances," says Paradee, who has practiced at the Dover firm Baird Mandalas Brockstedt LLC since January 2015.
"No two cases are ever the same, and it requires creativity in thinking about how to attack the problem."
Often, he's making a legal case against the backdrop of public opposition.
"People tend to feel pretty strongly about what happens in their backyard," Paradee says.
During Delaware's residential subdivision boom about a decade ago, that phenomenon manifested itself in the form of residents who moved to the state, then opposed nearby development.
"They wanted their backyard to look like a farm forever," he says. "Sometimes, people have unrealistic expectations about what should happen on property they don't own."
Though the law doesn't take neighbors' opposition into account, the pressure they exert on local governments can lead to unwarranted denials of permits.
"That's oftentimes the very reason why people call me," he says. "The code will say you can do something, and so they apply to do it, then, lo and behold, the local government votes it down."
Often, though, the code is open to interpretation.
Paradee once represented the developer of an asphalt plant proposed in Cheswold, a city where the code prohibited the "primary production of asphalt from raw materials." But he successfully argued the code prevented the production of asphalt tar—the sticky, black liquid made from petroleum—and not the mixing of this tar with crushed rocks to create the finished product.