Balancing Act

New London Attorney strives for fairness above all.

Reprinted with permission from The Day Publishing Co.

ATTORNEY DENISE P. ANSELL favors quality fabrics and rich colors, like the silky scarf of navy, gold and cream she wore over crisp slacks and a turtleneck recently as she showed a visitor the antiques in her Broad Street office.

Then there was the plush leather jacket, belted at the waist, that she threw over her workout clothes before leaving Old Lyme's DNA Wellness yoga studio on a raw night. After more than an hour of focused breathing and meditation, her long, honey-colored hair still looked perfect as she climbed into her sleek black Lexus that bears the vanity plate, "ANSELL."

She likes custom jewelry, Persian rugs and ballet, which she says is "a way for women to develop poise and move forward with grace." Her significant other and law partner, Attorney Adam A. Laben, is tall, dark and handsome.

But make no mistake. This 53-year-old attorney-with-an- MBA is no Barbie. Somebody who didn't know Ansell well once said she was "too blond," but the fairness she values most in herself is a quality of her character, not her appearance. She wears minimal makeup except when she is trying to "liberate people from their money" at a charitable or political fund-raiser. Then, she says, it's "full regalia." When she stands before a judge in court, she is more concerned with protocol and decorum than her looks.

"If you don't have respect for the system, how can the public have respect'" she said.

Ansell cared for both of her parents in their final years and decided to go to law school after her father died. She worked as a sales-woman at the Sears store in Crystal Mall while attending the University of Connecticut's law school. Customers must not have known what hit them.

"People came in to buy towels, and they left with a whole kitchen because I had to go to law school," she said.

Ansell keeps a sense of humor despite the serious nature of her work. Thumbing through client files on a busy morning at New London's G.A. court while repeatedly adjusting her shawl and pushing her hair off her face, she laughed about the way Hollywood portrays attorneys.

"They never show the lawyer dropping her files or spilling her change all over the place," she said.

Knowing some people don't hold attorneys in high regard, she joked, "I like to think people think of me as 'good pond scum.' "

Justice and karma

It is an uncanny coincidence that the Old English form of Ansell's surname describes the method for balancing the scales of justice. In one of her most notable cases, she won reversal of the conviction of Angelo Joyner, who had been imprisoned for eight years because his attorney, Samuel Dixon, was incompetent. Dixon, who was holding settlement funds from a wrongful death case involving Joyner's father, talked Joyner into using the funds to pay Dixon to defend Joyner on charges that he had raped and beaten his ex-girlfriend after a night of drinking and drugging.

Joyner wanted a more experienced defense attorney, but agreed to let Dixon handle the case. Dixon convinced Joyner to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and Joyner was convicted and sentenced to 50 years. It turned out Dixon actually spent the settlement funds on himself. With help from Laben, who is a certified public accountant, and certified public accountant H. Bruce Fielding, she followed the money to expose Dixon's misuse of the settlement funds.

Superior Court Judge Richard Rittenband, who presided over the case, wrote about the Joyner case in his book, "The Truths of Justice."

"She did a thorough and effective job," the judge wrote of Ansell. "Her performance was outstanding."

Ansell once represented a client, Jancis Fuller, who was accused of shooting at a judge's house. She moved to recuse all state judges from the case because they all would appear to have a conflict of interest. Conflicts like that seem to fall in her lap, she says, suggesting it is her "karma."

Though she can't talk about it because of a gag order, another attorney said Ansell once sued one of New London County's most prestigious law firms in a conflict of interest case. A lawyer who had represented her and her ex-husband was now representing her ex-husband in a case against Ansell. The case was settled in her favor.

In another case, the state "mysteriously" failed to renew her contract for court-appointed juvenile cases after she moved to recuse a judge from a case in which her court-appointed client was threatening to file a grievance against a former court-appointed attorney.

Her colleagues respect her even though, and perhaps because, she has challenged the system several times. Assistant State's Attorney Sarah E. Steere said Ansell walks a fine line in cases where she serves as a court-appointed "guardian ad litem" for children. Her duty is to recommend to the court what she thinks is in the best interest of her client, though the child's family might not agree.

"She does a great job," Steere said. "She's in a tough field. She deals with a lot of really sad problems. Some of the cases she hears, it rips your heart out."

Together, they have been able to help first offenders get back into school or reunite with their families.

"Sometimes we get creative," Steere said. She said Ansell often checks back with her clients long after their cases are adjudicated.

Public Defender Jennifer Nowak said Ansell is "very professional and prepared."

"She's got a nice demeanor," Nowak said. "She puts everybody at ease, yet doesn't back down from what she thinks is right."

Others said Ansell is aggressive and sometimes loud and fights hard for her clients. They said she is obsessive about doing things right.

Ansell knows people often wonder how an attorney can represent people who are obviously guilty.

"It's a matter of how much punishment is enough," she said.

Defense law is still, in her opinion, a bit of a boy's club.

"It's the last respite and most stubborn of any area of the law to accept women," she said.

When she is not poring over files, meeting with clients or appearing in court, Ansell is serving on nonprofit and community boards and campaigning for Democrats such as Second District congressional candidate Joe Courtney. She vacations in Newport and in Florida, where her sister lives, and spends time with her best friends and Laben's family.

Ansell is concentrating on her health as she continues to heal from an illness and cope with the changes that come with age. Practicing Kundalini yoga helps. She said she intends to celebrate, not mourn "that time of life when women come into their wisdom."

"I'll be damned," she said. "I'm not going to avoid aging. I'm going to enjoy it."

In the end, she wants to be remembered in the sense of the Old English word for her last name, as somebody who worked to keep the scales of justice in balance.

"I'll be happy if it says on my grave, "She did the right thing," she said.