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Firm Resolve

Robinson Donovan Is in a Growth Mode

Jeff Roberts

Jeff Roberts, managing partner with Robinson Donovan, P.C.

Jeff Roberts, managing partner with Robinson Donovan, P.C.[/caption]For Jim Martin, understanding where Robinson Donovan, P.C. is headed requires an appreciation of the past.

“I always think it’s illustrative, when we talk about Robinson Donovan, to acknowledge our historical connections,” he said of the Springfield-based law firm that will mark its 150th anniversary in 2016. “We trace our roots back to Gov. George Robinson, and we’re the longest continuing law firm in the Pioneer Valley — perhaps in the state.”

Martin, a partner at the firm, said the late Milton Donovan — one of the founders of the practice long known as Robinson Donovan Madden & Barry — always stressed client service, and that’s what the six current partners and nine associates continue to emphasize today. “We feel we’re able to deliver high-quality legal services in an effective manner.”

According to Jeffrey Roberts, the longest-tenured partner at Robinson Donovan, building that reputation has been a multi-generational effort.

“When I started here, there were six or seven lawyers,” he told BusinessWest. “But even at that size, I never had the impression that the firm was being run by a few owners doing it for themselves, who didn’t care to leave anything behind. And today, I think all the partners want this firm to keep going after they’re gone.

“That’s why we keep hiring, why we made the decision to remodel the place,” he said of the firm’s offices high in Tower Square. “We’re looking for people to come here in the early stage of their career and stay here, stay in the community. And it’s working. It’s enjoyable to see everyone working as a team here and growing. Even through the recent recession, we’ve been in the game the whole time and expanding again.”

A general-practice firm, Robinson Donovan specializes in a number of legal niches, including corporate and business law, commercial real estate, estate planning and administration, divorce and family law, employment law, and litigation. After a period of rapid contraction last decade — more than 30 lawyers worked there as recently as 15 years ago — business is growing in virtually all those specialties, Roberts said, and the practice is on the rise again, hiring five attorneys over the past five years.

“With employment-law work, we’re talking about all types of employment-law issues — harassment, wrongful termination, age discrimination, all kinds of discrimination claims, and counseling employers,” Roberts explained. “Another area that’s been really active for us has been family-law work — divorce and domestic relations.

“We continue to have a lot of demand,” he said, “so we’ll likely keep hiring. But we try to be careful in how we grow, so we don’t grow just for the sake of growing. We want to keep our level of service up, keep our expertise up, while bringing in more people. We’re pretty confident, notwithstanding swings in the economy, that we’ll keep growing.”

For this issue’s focus on law, BusinessWest sits down with several attorneys with Robinson Donovan to talk about why this firm with an extensive history is anticipating a bright future.

Raising the Bar

Roberts was quick to note that the firm’s recent hires have spanned most of its specialties.

“It’s interesting to note, when you look at the people we’ve hired, they work in general litigation, trusts and estates, corporate transaction law, labor and employment, domestic relations. In each one of those areas, the partners and lawyers say there’s more work coming in, and we need to hire more people. That’s a good indication where the key practice areas are in Western Mass.”

He and Martin said Robinson Donovan has been quick to assimilate fast-growing subspecialties into its roster of services. Take, for example, the growth of solar projects and other installations involving ‘green’ forms of energy production — projects that require legal services to navigate a host of real-estate, zoning, and regulatory issues.

Associate Mike Simolo

Associate Mike Simolo, right, says younger attorneys at Robinson Donovan benefit from a culture of mentorship promoted by Jim Martin, left, and the other partners.

“Every time you pick up the paper, there’s something new with these projects,” Roberts said. “We’ve become involved in these opportunities to the point where one of our younger lawyers, Nick Lata, is extremely knowledgable about them.

“We now have a considerable amount of expertise in solar work,” he continued. “There aren’t too many wind farms around, but Jim started representing a company putting up windmills. As you do these projects, you learn a lot, acquire a lot of expertise. We’re excited about that.”

Martin, an expert in transactions who is also a leading automotive franchise attorney, said the transfer of closely held businesses is another fast-growing field. “People would be very surprised how difficult it is to effectuate a smooth transition of a family business from one generation to the next. It’s fraught with variables and rarely as smooth as the owners or their successors would like it to be.”

Nancy Frankel Pelletier, a partner who specializes in litigation, also has plenty on her plate these days, including municipal issues ranging from zoning to civil rights. “It’s a substantial amount of work. The law is very broad, but the aspect of litigation is somewhat specialized. You need someone experienced in the courtroom, and we are.”

One growth area in litigation involves dissolving business partnerships in which only one partner wants to walk away. “In these cases, no one really thought about what would happen if they didn’t want to stay together anymore; they didn’t create an agreement that didn’t allow for someone to walk away. I’ve seen a spike in people trying to get out of those arrangements.”

Jeff Trapani, another associate who works in litigation, noted that cost factors tend to drive trends, which is why alternative dispute resolution and arbitration continue to rise in popularity.

Meanwhile, Roberts noted that estate planning has taken on new importance at a time when Baby Boomers are aging and estate-tax rules have drastically changed, with exemptions rising from $1 million in 2000 to $5.5 million today.

All these factors, he said, contribute to a fertile environment in which a law firm can thrive and expand its reach — and he expects Robinson Donovan to continue to do just that.

The Next Generation

Martin said this growth is possible because the firm has long emphasized a culture of mentoring, with senior partners, influenced by those who came before, constantly training the younger generation, including tax-law specialist Lata, estate-planning specialist Michael Simolo, and family-law specialist Katherine McCarthy. “We continue to build a foundation of new talent, which we’re proud of.”

Simolo, for one, appreciates that culture. “It’s comforting to me to know I’ve got help available to me from both the partners and associates and the paralegals, if I need to turn to someone with an issue.”

Gesturing to Roberts and Martin, he noted, “there’s probably 65 years worth of legal experience sitting at this table, and it’s nice to be able to draw on that both in terms of not only getting the work done in a professional manner, but also client development. The culture here is to be applauded. Frankly, I feel totally comfortable going to any one of the partners with a question — ‘want to grab lunch? I’ve got an issue I want to talk over.’ That kind of thing happens here all the time. It’s very collegial, very team-oriented. For me, that’s one of the real pluses.”

It’s also a practical matter, Roberts said, to make sure all attorneys are up to speed.

“We’re big enough that we can take on big projects. On the other hand, we’re not too big. Clients want effiency, they want service, and when things go awry, they want someone to talk to,” he explained. “We’re well-positioned to do that. When we get young lawyers in, we get them involved right away in things that the other lawyers are doing. We don’t hide them for five years; we get them directly involved with clients. It gives a lot of depth to the practice. I’m on vacation, they know who to call. If somebody’s in a meeting or out of the office for two days, there’s always somebody they can call.”

Martin also praised the firm’s paralegal staff, many of whom have been at Robinson Donovan for many years. “We work as a team here, and we draw on their areas of training and deliver services in an efficient way, which is important to us.”

Attorneys Jeff Trapani and Nancy Frankel Pelletier

Attorneys Jeff Trapani and Nancy Frankel Pelletier say their litigation work has become more complex in recent years.

The firm has also built strong bonds in the community, with partners and associates serving on the boards of dozens of area nonprofits.

“It’s hard to do because everyone is so busy at work,” Roberts said, before emphasizing that such efforts are more than worth the time and energy. “I don’t think we’re any different than any other law firm. It’s hard to have a family, do all your work, and stay involved in the community. When somebody is able to do that, it really reflects some strong character. And we really like to see it.”

Looking Up

Robinson Donovan has come a long way since its early days, when it was best known for George Robinson’s successful defense of Lizzie Borden on double murder charges in 1892. These days, Martin noted, the firm is being recognized in a host of ways, such as the citations many of its attorneys have received from organizations like Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers, and Martindale-Hubbell. Simolo expects more of the same in the future.

“I think they’ve made some great hires since I’ve been here,” he said. “It’s encouraging to me to see the partners investing in the future of the firm.

“They’re very pragmatic and results-oriented in helping people solve issues,” Simolo continued. “They do that very well, as a result of having decades of experience. And it works out very well for the client.”

“We’re very results-oriented,” Frankel Pelletier agreed. “People don’t always perceive it this way, but we’re problem solvers. That’s what we do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]