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Doherty, Wallace, Pillsbury & Murphy Thrives in a Shifting Law Landscape

Courting Change

Shareholders A Craig Brown, right, and Michael Sweet

Shareholders A Craig Brown, right, and Michael Sweet, like most of the attorneys at Doherty Wallace Pillsbury & Murphy have a number of practice areas.

When four respected attorneys came together 49 years ago to form Doherty, Wallace, Pillsbury & Murphy, they had solid ideas about where they would focus their practice. But in the decades since, this Springfield-based institution, while still true to its corporate and litigation roots, has become far more nimble, specialized, and adaptable to changes in the legal field driven by regulatory shifts, technological advances, and evolving client needs. In doing so, it has forged one of the region’s true local success stories.

Laws, as any attorney knows, are far from static. And a law firm that wants to not only survive, but thrive and grow over five decades must recognize how to pivot and adapt.

Take, for example, education law, an area where Doherty, Wallace, Pillsbury & Murphy has bolstered its roster of attorneys in recent years.

“The business of running a school or college is subject to more regulation than you would ever believe,” said shareholder Craig Brown, noting that the firm’s clients include American International College, Williston Northampton School, and Wilbraham & Monson Academy. “They have to sort through a lot of regulatory challenges, and they have a lot of employment-law issues right now. At AIC, they’re wrestling with the idea of shared governance; the faculty feels they have a voice in decision making that affects the academic side of the house. Where is the line drawn?”

Another recent challenge for educational institutions is making their websites accessible to people with disabilities, which is now required by law.

“Schools are a lot like businesses, but they have this regulatory climate,” Brown added. “It’s an emerging area of the law.”

Another example of an evolving area of the law is intellectual property. Shareholder Deborah Basile spearheads Doherty Wallace’s practice in this field, and enjoys the challenge.

“I love working with inventors and working with businesses that have new product lines,” she told BusinessWest. “They want to protect some intellectual property surrounding those, or have developed a new feature in a product line they’ve sold for a long time.”

The Internet has added new wrinkles as well.

“Everyone has a website now; that’s the way we do business, and using the Internet properly and carefully is another aspect of my practice,” she explained. “For example, a manufacturing company needs to be careful in terms of what to expose or disclose in terms of a unique business method or unique product.”

That said, recent modifications in patent law have made it easier for inventors to protect themselves, she added — the rare societal trend that may make her work easier, not thornier. In any case, “identifying what your intellectual property is and protecting it going forward is a critical growth area for us.”

Doherty Wallace, now boasting about two dozen attorneys, has been based in Springfield since its inception, when four attorneys with diverse strengths came together in 1967.

“Fred Pillsbury was generally recognized as the best litigator in the area,” Brown said. “He was named a judge just two years earlier, but it was too boring, so he came off the Superior Court bench. Lou Doherty was a well-regarded business and general corporate lawyer. Bob Murphy was a labor lawyer, and Dudley Wallace was a tax lawyer.”

The firm slowly built on that core — including Lou Doherty’s son, Paul, who led the firm for decades until his passing in January — and their commitment was evident to their younger associates.

“Fred Pillsbury was a magnet for business, and an engine that helped grow the firm,” Brown said, explaining that he had a nerve disorder that eventually took his life, but even when he could barely function, he still came in to practice as much as he could. “It was a remarkable thing.”

Today, the firm maintains — as it always has — strong roots in business law and litigation, but has become more specialized over time.

“The days of one lawyer with one assistant who types are fading,” said shareholder Michael Sweet. “Everyone here is focused on how to best staff projects in the most effective way for clients.”

Information Age

The key, as always, is smart change, Sweet said, even as the firm extends its lease at Monarch Place — where it has done business since the tower opened — for another 10 years.

“One of the key aspects of the decision to stay here long-term is recognizing we’re not done adapting,” he said. “We realize things are going to change, and when we planted our roots here, we knew we could be successful here, and have the capacity to grow and change.”

Computer technology has added layers of challenge to the practice of law, Sweet noted.

“The tech world in general has impacted this profession like it has everything else. The focus is on efficiency and specialization,” Sweet said, adding that the firm has continually recruited attorneys with expertise in growing specialty areas, from Basile, who launched the intellectual-property group, to a pending hire to bolster the firm’s depth in employment law, a field that is seeing plenty of change due to a constantly shifting regulatory landscape. “We continue to look at our clients and ask, ‘what kinds of services do our clients need?’ and then we go out and recruit in those areas.”

Shareholders Jeffrey Meehan, left, and Barry Ryan

Shareholders Jeffrey Meehan, left, and Barry Ryan, are among the players on the large and talented team at Doherty Wallace Pillsbury & Murphy.

Technology has also changed the way people behave, which also affects the practice of law, said shareholder Jeffrey Meehan. Take, for example, all the smartphone video being instantly recorded of … well, everything, from crimes in progress to protests gone awry. That has a major impact on the world of litigation, which is Meehan’s specialty.

The digital culture will even shape the firm’s upcoming renovation of its office, with a library used for decades to store bound books of information to be replaced by a finance and accounting department that needs more space.

But while so much data is at lawyers’ fingertips via computer these days, the information age has also made clients less patient, Brown noted. The past model of putting correspondence in the mail and waiting days or weeks for a response just doesn’t cut it anymore. “Instead, you’re e-mailing a document and expecting a review within a very short amount of time. Over the course of hours, literally, you can negotiate, make changes, and finalize the transaction documents. That puts an incredible amount of stress on a lawyer.”

Still, one key to being successful is to use the technology to benefit client relationships, not hinder them, Sweet said, stressing that relationships are still cultivated with care at the firm, not in haste. “We’re definitely not built on one quick hit with e-mails. We have not lost focus on the relationships, which, at the end of the day, are more important than those e-mails.”

Basile agreed. “We’re entrenched in the old-fashioned virtues of what it was like to be a lawyer back in the ’60s and ’70s, how you provided personal services on a slow and steady basis. But we also have to keep up with what we need to compete in this very responsive world we live in.”

Other changes at Doherty Wallace are being driven by retirements and new opportunities for veteran attorneys. The firm lost two long-time members recently to judgeships, as Michele Ouimet-Rooke was appointed a District Court judge earlier this year, and last week, Michael Callan was sworn in as a Superior Court judge.

“So we’ve been looking at the future and making investments in the future,” Brown said, “which we need to do to continue to be viable.”

Deep Roots

Brown has seen plenty of change in the city that has dominated his life. He was born in Springfield and has fond memories of a thriving downtown, and then, once the bustle of the peak years faded, of efforts to revitalize it, with redevelopment projects like Market Place, which Doherty Wallace was involved in.

“There was an ongoing attempt to pull Springfield up, and it never worked, and the effort stopped for a while,” he said. But now, he added, major economic-development pieces like MGM Springfield and Union Station, and a general sense of renewal downtown, has people excited again. “It’s an abundance of changes that create opportunities and bring Springfield to where we’d all like it to be — a thriving city.”

Doherty Wallace will enjoy the benefits of that renewed energy, Sweet said, at least for the next 10 years and, in all likelihood, much longer.

“The fact that we’re sitting here in downtown Springfield when other firms have left is telling,” he added. “At the end of the day, what you do as an organization is more important than what you say, and our firm has made a decision to stay here long-term. That’s more evidence of how we feel about the region. We’re hiring new lawyers, and we’re fortunate to have a lot of business, and interest from lawyers who want to come work here.”

Basile agreed. “There are a lot of great things about Springfield, and the people here at Doherty Wallace are really hopeful about the future,” she said. “We see the big picture, and we’re committed to the city.”

Brown told BusinessWest the region has never seen a project with as much transformative potential as the casino, due partly to the way it will be integrated with the entire downtown and have the ability to attract more business, which in turn may attract more residents, in a cycle of growth.

Meehan hopes so. He says the Pioneer Valley has always been a “poor cousin” to Boston as far as business growth, wealth, and opportunities, and noted that developments like the casino have run concurrent to backward steps as well, like Bank of America leaving the downtown area. “I’m scratching my head about that because they seemed to have some business here.”

One constant at Doherty Wallace, no matter the economic climate, has been a focus on volunteerism and community involvement, something Paul Doherty, famous for helping out with local organizations and initiatives, often without having to be asked.

“He set the example of how to be involved in the community,” Brown said. “It’s deeply part of the culture here, and everyone feels it, and everyone is encouraged to commit to the community.”

Sweet went even further, noting that this culture is one of the things that attracts people to work at Doherty Wallace. “It’s one of the reasons I chose to work here. We’re a significant part of the community in all ways.”

A Significant Loss

Brown recalls being hired to work alongside Doherty in 1977; in the interview, he was asked how he felt about working Saturdays. He immediately realized that this was a workplace that demanded much, but he learned the work was immensely rewarding as well.

“Paul was the leader of this law firm,” he said. “He set the tone in terms of the culture, the community involvement, the quality of lawyering. He was very focused on us providing the highest-quality service at all times.”

Basile agreed. “Paul was my mentor. He taught me how to be a lawyer,” she said. “The sad thing is, he wasn’t done. He had more to do. He was still committed to this city, to this law firm, and to inspiring those of us he left behind.”

Brown said Doherty knew everyone, and everyone knew him — and he valued those relationships far beyond his practice.

“Those relationships are what has endured over the decades, and those lessons on how to be a lawyer, how to give back to the community,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s all Paul Doherty. We were blessed to have him as long as we had him, and we still have him with us.”

That sentiment provides more than enough motivation for this half-century-old law firm that has experienced plenty of change, and welcomes whatever may come next.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]