BELLOWS FALLS — In mid-January, the closing of the Massucco & Stern law firm will bring an end to one chapter of a half century of legal service in southern Vermont.
Following the unexpected death of his law partner, Ray Massucco, on Sept. 27, Attorney Josh Stern had some decisions to make about proceeding.
“I am in the process of closing down my current firm, Massucco & Stern, P.C.,” Stern sent to the firm's clients last week, “and following closure will be practicing exclusively criminal defense.”
The closing will take effect Jan. 1, 2023. Clients who desire copies of their files can request them until Jan. 9, 2023.
“Over the coming weeks, we will be winding down the firm, and files will be available to clients or their new attorneys upon request,” Stern said. “Those files which are not claimed prior to January 16, 2023 will be destroyed.”
A long family legacy
The closing will mark a notable change for the community, as the Massucco name on business signs in this village goes back at least 65 years.
Massucco's father, Lawrence, moved to Bellows Falls in 1958, hanging out a shingle at 5 Henry St. for his practice as a dentist and oral surgeon. Even earlier, relatives in the community had run stores and other businesses in Bellows Falls going back to the 1800s.
Larry Massucco remained in practice until 1982. By that time, Ray was a well-established attorney in the community.
Ray Massucco was a 1965 graduate of Bellows Falls High School, and he graduated from the University of Vermont in 1970 and from Suffolk Law School in 1973.
Massucco clerked with the Kissell Law Firm starting in June of that year, while he was in law school. Attorney Tony Kissell convinced him to move back to Bellows Falls and join the firm, which he did after his graduation in May 1973.
The Kissell Law Firm was founded in Bellows Falls in 1948 by Tony Kissell's brother, Bill, who was swamped with so much legal work that he convinced his brother to join him.
In early 1972, Bill Kissell died.
In 1975, Massucco was named a full partner in what officially became the Kissell & Massucco Law Firm.
Following Kissell's death in 1989, Massucco worked with a number of other attorneys over the years, including Hal Miller, Robert Casper, John Marchica, Susan Hathaway, and Eric Velto.
The origin of Massucco & Stern
How Massucco and Stern got together is a typical small-town story.
Massucco's wife, Ginny, a teacher, worked in a school with Stern's mother, who told Ginny that she had a grown son who was thinking of a career change and getting into law.
“I told Ray about it,” said Ginny. “Ray and Josh talked, and then he came in and they met face to face. Boom! They really hit it off.”
That was some 15 years ago. Vermont is one of the few states that allows students to “read the law” in order to prepare for the bar exams. Instead of going to law school, a student who is reading the law works as an intern under the mentoring of an experienced lawyer. Popular in past centuries, it is a rare, hands-on path to a law degree, and it's the one Stern took.
In addition to the hands-on apprenticeship, “they also have to study the law on their own, build on their experience, and they have to pass the bar,” Ginny Massucco said.
That's what Stern did, passing the bar with outstanding scores - a fact that Ray Massucco often mentioned about his eventual law partner.
Stern would practice with other firms around Vermont, and in 2019 he returned to join Massucco's practice as a partner.
In most ways Massucco's law practice was typical for a small-town lawyer, but over the years, he worked on a few major cases.
Perhaps the most notorious example: the “Baby Amy” case in 1987 and 1988. In that case, a young woman gave birth to what she claimed she thought was a stillborn child.
The baby was left for dead at a rest stop in Putney. The road crew found the nearly-frozen but still-alive baby, and they quickly got it warmed and hospitalized. Nurses at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center named the infant “Baby Amy.”
The baby survived, and the mother was identified and charged with child abandonment in what became a fairly sensational trial. Massucco was one of her defense lawyers.
The legal team was able to get the case settled without going to trial, with probation and mental health counseling for the defendant, and no jail time.
Small-town law cases are usually a lot less dramatic. Massucco once told his wife that “there's a lot riding on it when you're doing criminal law,” including the possibility of a client going to jail or of never getting paid for your services.
So when criminal law started looking like it would take up all his time, Massucco stepped away from it.
“It wasn't the kind of law he wanted to practice,” Ginny Massucco said.
Small-town law also has some unexpected methods of payment. As was true for the dental practice of his father, Massucco sometimes bartered his services.
“We weren't always paid in money,” Ginny Massucco said. “Clients left bags of potatoes on the porch. We traded for maple syrup, for firewood, for paintings.”
Ready for the future
Ginny Massucco said that it remains to be seen what becomes of the historic Franklin House, a large, Colonial-style building at 90 Westminster St. built in 1800.
Massucco & Stern Law Office has operated from the building since 1986. Stern is relocating his office.
In recent years, Massucco had extensive exterior work and a new paint job done to the building, which sits at the south entrance to the village and overlooks the Connecticut River.
In 2020, the revamped house won an award from the Rockingham Preservation Commission. The Massucco family has repeated rumors that a friendly spirit inhabits the house.
Whether true or not, it seems the house itself is ready for its next adventure.
“Ray was very proud of the work we did on the house,” Ginny Massucco said. “He was very happy with the job done. He felt he was getting it ready for whatever the future might bring."