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Dogged Determination

The ‘Next Generation’ Takes the Helm at Cooley Shrair
Peter Shrair, with Motzard.

Peter Shrair, with Motzard.

His name is Motzard, or ‘Motz’ for short.

He’s a 3-year-old, 100-pound ‘gold-oodle,’ as Peter Shrair called it, meaning a cross between a golden retriever and a standard poodle. Shrair took him to work when he was very young so he could keep an eye on him, with the thought that this arrangement would just be for a few days.

Well, Motz has come to work every day since.

“Our people love him, clients love him … he’s just a small part of what makes this firm a little different, said Shrair, referring to Springfield-based Cooley Shrair. “Doing things differently is part of our culture, and it always will be.”

And Shrair will now have a much larger role in defining and shaping that culture. Effective May 1, he became managing principal with the firm, succeeding his father, David, who had held that role for more than 35 years, and just the third person to hold that rank in the company’s 63-year history.

Unlike at other firms, where one might be managing partner for a few years or maybe five, at Cooley Shrair one can have that role that for decades, said Peter Shrair, who expects that scenario for himself.

“I equate it to football,” he explained. “You have this job until you lateral it off to someone else — and I don’t expect that I’ll be doing that for a long time.”

All three generations of managing principals will still be working at the firm’s office on Main Street. This means both Shrairs, and also Sid Cooley, co-founder of the company with his brother, Ed, and a former District Court judge who, at age 94, still reports to work every day.

They and fellow principals Mark Mason and Robert Damrov will plot a course for the firm, but Peter Shrair will take the lead role. He said he has no master strategy other than to simply continue to stay on the course set down by his predecessors — meaning an operating philosophy that provides clients with much more than an opportunity to pet Motz.

That philosophy is summed up, he said, in the company’s relatively new marketing slogan: “Unparalleled Response, Unparal-leled Solutions.”

In this issue, BusinessWest talks with the Shrairs about why they feel comfortable making that claim.

Working Their Tails Off

When asked about how his job description and daily routine will change now that he is former managing principal, David Shrair, now 73, was quick and to the point.

“Not much at all,” he said, adding, “I’m not retiring … I’ll just have a little more time to work harder.”

With this acknowledged oxymoron, the elder Shrair noted that he has passed several administrative duties on to his son, giving him more time to focus on his speciality — business law, and especially work with several area financial institutions.

This has been the crux of the firm’s work since the Cooley brothers set up shop in downtown Springfield 1946, and it explains why the firm’s fortunes are tied tightly to the state of the economy and, more specifically, to the health of the banking community.

During the boom times of the early and mid-’80s, for example, the firm enjoyed explosive growth, and eventually topped out at 22 lawyers. But things changed quickly when the bubble burst, especially for the banking and commercial real-estate sectors.

“I was on vacation when I read in the Wall Street Journal that Bank of New England was in receivership,” David Shrair recalled. “I knew at that moment that we were going to have to let six lawyers go — Bank of New England was that big a client.”

It would be several weeks before the firm actually took that step, said Peter, who joined the company in 1986, noting that the six to be laid off were given time to find other employment.

This act of compassion speaks to the manner in which the company operates, said Peter, who noted that Cooley Shrair refers to itself as a “progressive” law firm. Elaborating, he said this is a mindset, or a family-business mentality, that manifests itself in how clients and staff members are treated.

As for the latter, there is flexibility with schedules, accommodations made for those trying to balance life and work, and a compensation system that rewards people for results.

“People do work long, hard hours to do what’s necessary for their clients,” said Peter Shrair. “But we do build in a lot of flexibility. Overall, it’s just an enjoyable place to work, and that’s why we have very little turnover.”

As for clients, both Shrairs said the company is continuously looking for ways to better serve them, especially in an age when technology and modes of communication prompt expectations of service that run 24/7, not 9 to 5.

“The firm’s culture has always been ‘service first,’ and that goes back to when I was a young lawyer in the early ’60s,” said David Shrair. “That’s because I had to make my own living — that’s the basis on which Ed and Sid Cooley hired me. They said, ‘c’mon in with us, and let’s see what you can produce.’

“Well, young lawyers coming out of law school know absolutely nothing about the practice of law,” he continued. “So you had to go out and do something different.”

That ‘something,’ he said, has been a sharp focus on customer service that he believes is uncommon in the industry — rare enough for him to approve the use of the word ‘unparalleled’ in marketing materials to describe response and service.

“Most lawyers don’t think client service 24/7,” Shrair continued. “We do, because the culture here has always been service-first, service faster than anyone else can provide it, and expertise that’s equal to or better than what anyone else has.”

This operating philosophy differentiates the firm in ways far beyond having Motz greet clients at the reception desk, said Peter Shrair, who told BusinessWest that this “attitude,” as he called it, appealed to him when he clerked at his father’s firm while attending law school in the mid-’80s. He said he considered a number of career alternatives while earning his JD, including opportunities in Boston and New York, but ultimately decided that his best option was Springfield and Cooley Shrair.

“By the time I was midway through law school, I had pretty much made up my mind that this was where I wanted to be,” he said. “I realized that you could do sophisticated work in a small city; you didn’t have to be in Boston or New York.”

The younger Shrair, who became a partner in 1992 and also focuses on banking-related work, takes the helm in the midst of another economic downturn, albeit one that no one is comparing to 1991, especially with regard to the banking and commercial real-estate sectors. And both the current and former managing principal believe the company’s strong track record with regard to customer service and results will help it not only ride out the storm, but thrive.

“We’re extremely busy,” said David Shrair, banking his fist on the wooden conference table as he did so. “We’re on pace to surpass last year, and last year, we set some records.”

Paws for Effect

When asked about his change in responsibilities and what it will mean for him, Peter Shrair shrugged and, like his father when asked the same question, said, “not much.”

“I’ll have the same office, the same dog … I’ll just have a little more to do,” he said, adding that he will handle the same legal workload and will have the same title on his business card: ‘Attorney at Law.’

While the change in command is significant in that the proverbial football has been lateraled after 35 years, nothing much will change at this firm, which has known only one way to do business since the first generation of managing principal.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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