No Recess

T he Polish name “Dobrowolski” (pronounced Dobrovolski) translates to “one of good will.” In the case of New Haven attorney Joseph S. Dobrowolski, “iron will” might be more appropriate.

His colleagues among the Elm City’s personal-injury law elite will testify to that. For well over half a century, Dobrowolski has forged a lucrative career representing victims of motor vehicle accidents—cases his friend Charles J. Donato, of the law firm Clenenden & Shea, characterizes as “three yards and a cloud of dust” (referencing a grinding, incremental advancement strategy in football). Such cases don’t frequently yield huge financial judgments, but Joe D., as his peers refer to him, has “represented so many of them that he’s earned fabulously well, much better than most attorneys could reasonably hope to,” Donato says.

And it sounds like he’s really earned those earnings. “What stands out about him is his absolutely relentless pursuit of a good outcome for his clients and himself,” says attorney Edward L. Walsh, whose office is one floor above Dobrowolski’s at 51 Elm Street. “He will do whatever is necessary to represent clients as diligently as he can, and will not hesitate to engage in warfare with the opposition.”

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Outside the courtroom, Joe D. stands out for other reasons. Ironically, he himself has never driven a car, nor ever obtained a driver’s license. “It just evolved that I didn’t need one,” he says, noting that he leaves all the driving to his wife of 62 years, Martha. For more than 30 years, he walked the six-mile roundtrip trek between his Westville home and downtown office on foot every day—walking, he says, a “15-minute mile” with the “straight as an arrow” posture he learned as a marine in World War II. He gave up the walk home about 20 years ago—upon deciding some stretches of the journey weren’t safe enough after dark—and he only gave up the morning walk 18 months ago, following a bout of pneumonia. Now, he takes the bus.

Dobrowolski’s law office is likewise modest, consisting of an office for himself (decorated with family photos, military-themed art and framed credentials hanging askew), a station for his paralegal secretary, Shelley Edwards, and a small waiting area. When he needs a conference room, he uses Ed Walsh’s upstairs. “He maintains that he can’t afford a conference room of his own,” Walsh says. “That’s become a running joke between us.” He also operated without a secretary for many years, preferring to type up all paperwork himself, using a skill he acquired while attending New Haven’s former business-oriented secondary school, Commercial High.

Where Joe D. tends not to be so DIY is his wardrobe. He’s long taken pride in his designer suits by Brioni and Zegna, often purchased in New York. Says Walsh, “When I acquired my first Brioni, I thought I’d finally made it to Joe’s level. That’s a benchmark for lawyers, when you can spend a few thousand on a suit, instead of a few hundred.”

At one time, a suit worth a few hundred in today’s dollars would have been a serious luxury for Dobrowolski. Born to Polish immigrants in New Britain, he moved to New Haven when very young, and at age 8 began working with his father, who operated a fruit and vegetable wagon. Later jobs included a summer gig working on an oyster shell pile by the Quinnipiac River (for which he earned 30 cents a hour and logged 60 hours a week), a stint as a deck hand on a oyster boat and shifts at Henry G. Thompson & Son’s hacksaw manufactory.

He was working for American Steel & Wire Co. when he enlisted to serve in World War II. After bootcamp, he spent 33 months in the artillery of a marine battalion stationed in the South Pacific under the command of future U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Upon returning to New Haven in 1945, he decided to ride the G.I. Bill into college, but first he had to earn the kind of preparatory academic credits his schooling at Commercial High hadn’t given him. So, he pursued them at Milford Academy. “I had no idea what I wanted to study,” Dobrowolski says. He consulted with Milford’s headmaster, who suggested he consider liberal arts and the law, which “sounded good.” Ultimately, he earned a law degree from Northeastern University in 1952.

After graduation, he investigated joining the FBI, which wasn’t accepting applicants, although one official at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., thought his Polish background and language fluency made him an ideal candidate for the CIA. “They wanted him to parachute into Poland,” says his wife, Martha. “Considering his great fear of heights, that would have been hysterical.”

Returning to New Haven, he passed the bar exam in January, 1953. “They called to give me that news on a Saturday, and by Monday I’d opened an office on Court Street,” he says. At first, he took on every kind of case—from civil to criminal—but it didn’t take him long to recognize that personal-injury cases were his strong suit. “One early case settled for $5,000 and I made $1,600. I remember thinking, ‘This is the business to be in!’”

Some attorneys with Dobrowolski’s long history might be inclined to take it easy now. But he says there’s “no reason” to retire. Extremely competitive, he still handles 15 new cases a month. “Whenever there’s a holiday coming up, he always asks me if I’m working that day,” says Walsh. “Because if I am, he wants to work, too—he’s afraid that I’ll take one of the cases he might otherwise get.”

Dobrowolski manages to be collegial about it, though. Daily lunches—as well as morning and afternoon coffee—with as many of his peers as will join him is a decades-long tradition. Lawyers who show up at the current meet-spot, Geltman’s Deli, typically discuss everything but law, although those struggling with a case can get advice. “He’s helped me in many ways,” says attorney Frederick P. Leaf. “Much of what I do is in emulation of him.”

After hours, Dobrowolski is a great lover of culture, and with Martha’s companionship regularly attends Long Wharf Theatre, the New Haven Symphony and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, he says. His advice to anyone wanting a life as vital as his is this: “Above all, find out what you really enjoy, [then] follow through and do it.”

And if you’re half as tenacious as Joe D., you’ll do it just fine.

Joseph S. Dobrowolski, Attorney at Law
51 Elm St, Ste 202, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-1293 | jdobrowolski@sbcglobal.net

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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