Public Defender Thomas J. Haley is the "lord of the manor" at New London's GA10 courthouse, according to his colleagues.
He knows the legal system so well that he ends up training everybody who arrives there - from the defense attorneys to the prosecutors and even the judges.
And it's no secret, said Judge Kevin P. McMahon, who presides over criminal matters at the courthouse, that of the defense attorneys who practice there, Haley gets the best deals for his clients.
"He knows the value of cases. He knows the facts. He knows the law," McMahon said. "And you just want to help Tom Haley."
On Friday, the New London County Bar Association presented Haley with the Liberty Bell award at its annual Law Day Luncheon at the Norwich Inn & Spa.
The tall, white-haired lawyer smiled when the assembly gave him a standing ovation, delivered a brief acceptance speech and, as usual, deflected the praise he received.
"I've been fortunate to work with really good people," he said. "People who really care about the less fortunate and want to make sure the right thing is done."
Haley, 64, says he is contemplating retirement in November after 35 years of practice. Haley has had health problems, and his wife, Madeleine, is eager for him to retire and spend more time with the family, including their first grandchild. Haley said he started to think it was time to retire when he began representing the grandchildren of people who once had been his clients.
The Groton native served in the Vietnam War and worked at Electric Boat before attending Western New England Law School. He volunteered in the public defender's office during law school and, after passing the bar, worked there unpaid for six months before "they found me a job," Haley said.
Gregg W. Wagman, president of the New London County Bar Association, said Haley's contributions to the profession fit this year's Law Day theme: "No courts, no freedom, no justice."
"When you think about it, who better than a public defender?" Wagman said. "And Tom Haley has been doing it for 35 years."
Bruce A. Sturman, the chief public defender in New London County, said Haley's reputation among the legal community is "impeccable."
"Everybody trusts Tom," Sturman said.
''I can't remember who said this and when, but the best quote I ever heard about Tom Haley is this," said Kevin C. Barrs, also a public defender. "I learned the law in law school, but I learned how to be a lawyer from Tom Haley."
The keynote speaker at the event was Judge John M. Newson, who said the state of the economy over the last few years has affected the court system. He said more people cannot afford lawyers and are representing themselves, which makes the process more difficult.
He also said that a reduction in staffing, particularly among clerks and judicial marshals, has slowed things down.
"Everybody's working through it in their own ways," Newson said.