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Jeff Sagalyn: Not Your Run of the Mill Lawyer

Jeff Sagalyn

Jeff Sagalyn says the key to be a good lawyer is “knowing when you don’t know something.”

Jeff Sagalyn is now leasing the space at 165 Front St. in Chicopee, considered part of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park.

But for 20 years, he and partner Dan Burack owned and managed the complex and its 680,000-odd square feet of old mill space, a business venture that also helped shape Sagalyn’s career in the legal profession.

Indeed, the time commitment that accompanied the task of managing the property and its 12 employees eventually forced Sagalyn to leave the firm of Kalill, Sagalyn and Glasser in 1992 and become a sole practitioner, one with a more-narrow field of focus. Meanwhile, he would wind up representing several of the tenants he would sign to leases at the mill, becoming ‘landlord/lawyer,’ as he put it.

And the experience of running the mill and managing its workforce eventually made him a better business lawyer, by his estimation, and helped him gain new clients in that specialty.

“It was certainly an advantage to me to be running a business, overseeing employees, paying the taxes, and overall management,” he explained. “I could not only read a balance sheet, I had my own balance sheet to read, and used my own personal knowledge to the benefit of my business clients.”

Sagalyn and Burack sold Cabotville in 2004 to Brooklyn real estate developer Josh Guttman. As part of the deal, Sagalyn negotiated a lease back of his three-room office that sits across the canal from the mill. But he also represents Guttman in a wide range of mill-related matters, from lease negotiations to the permitting and other logistical concerns involved with emerging plans to convert large portions of the mill into residential units.

So the old mill once owned by and purchased from Sagalyn’s uncle continues to shape a law career, one that started 30 years ago and has seen a number of twists and turns. Sagalyn told BusinessWest he has shared space, worked within firms, and been a sole practitioner — and enjoyed each experience. He’s also become less of a generalist, focusing his work on several niche specialties including domestic relations (divorce), probate work, estate planning, and business law.

The evolution has been more a matter of need than choice, he explained, noting that as different areas of the law have become complex over the years, the days of the old fashioned general practitioner have essentially ended — at least for him.

“When I first started out, I was told to essentially take everything and anything that came in the door,” he said. “I would never give that advice to young lawyers today; instead, they should find a niche and practice within it.

“When I think back on some of the cases I took when I was younger, I still shiver,” he continued. “I had no business taking some of those cases. So much has changed over the years … everything is more complex, and the advice you give today could be the wrong advice for tomorrow.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Sagalyn’s commitment to the community, especially the human services field. He is currently president of the Board of Directors for the Center for Human Development. CHD is the largest community based human services organization in Western Mass., and provides mental health, children, family, and developmental disability services to thousands of individuals through 40 different programs.

Sagalyn, the latest subject of BusinessWest’s ongoing Attorney Profile series, will be honored for those efforts later this month with the Community Service Award, presented by the Mass. Bar Assoc. for work that falls outside the realm of the law.

In a wide-ranging interview, Sagalyn talked about his work within the community, his practice, the mill, and how he’s managed to balance it all.

Time Passages

Sagalyn’s office is in one of the older remaining buildings from the former Dwight Mfg. Co. complex that dominated the section of Chicopee that was once part of Springfield and known as Cabotville.

On the walls are several framed renderings of the original mill complex, much of which was destroyed by fire and replaced by the existing mill, built in the early 1920s. And there are several artifacts from that era, including a 14-foot-high Seth Thomas grandfather’s clock, said to be among the largest ever built in this country, that came with the mill.

Actually, there were four of this particular model built, said Sagalyn, who was given the background by a clock expert (now deceased) from Old Sturbridge Village. That was the good news, he continued, adding that the bad news was his assessment that too much had done to the clock over the years to make it worth as much as the two partners had hoped.

While Sagalyn has always been fascinated by the history of the mill and items like the clock, it was the landmark’s potential as a business opportunity and sound real estate investment that prompted he and Burack to roll the dice and acquire the landmark.

At the time, he was a partner with the firm Hagarty, Malloy, Sagalyn, and Battista, and learning not to take every case that came in the door.

“The key to practicing law is knowing when you don’t know something,” he said, adding that when this threshold is crossed, it’s time to refer a client and his or her business to someone who does know. “Anyone who says ‘I can do it all’ is not going to be a good lawyer; you have to know your limitations.”

By fully understanding his, and focusing his work on those selected niches he spoke of, Sagalyn has built his practice over the years. In 1985, he became part of Kalill, Sagalyn & Glasser, based in Springfield, and remained there until he felt his duties with Cabotville necessitated a slight scaling back of his legal work and a move into the mill complex.

Over the years, he successfully juggled his work at the mill with his law practice — and achieved a desired measure of success with each.

“There was a flow to managing the mill that allowed me to spend sufficient time at my practice, but also spend sufficient time here,” he explained. “And like all lawyers, I would work on weekends to get everything done.”

Sagalyn told BusinessWest that he and Burack never actually put a ‘for sale’ sign on Cabotville, but several years ago, following the departure of two large tenants, they engaged an out-of-state broker who specialized in old mills to quietly market the property and field offers.

“We weren’t motivated sellers,” he explained, noting quickly that it had become apparent that it was going to be difficult to find large tenants to fill the space that had been vacated. “We simply said, ‘if you find someone, we’ll listen.’”

The broker eventually found Guttman and a deal was struck, he said, adding that the timing of the transaction could not have been better.

“When we sold, oil was still $35 a barrel,” he told BusinessWest, noting that he and Burack were heating more than 200,000 square feet of unused space at the time. “It worked out very well for us.”

While he still handles some work for Guttman, Sagalyn has much more time for his practice — and his work outside it, which has always been part of juggling act. Sagalyn has donated time and energy to the profession — he’s currently president of the Chicopee Bar Assoc. and treasurer of the Hampden County Bar Assoc., for example — and to work within the community.

Much of the latter was inspired by what he saw and experienced in his youth; one of his childhood friends had a sister with Down’s Syndrome.

“I got to know her very well,” he explained, “and I saw the lack of response from the state in assisting this family. I also saw what a loving family does for a child with special needs.

“When I started practicing law, that same family asked me to join the board of a very small non-profit group called Meadows Homes, which provided group homes in the surburbs,” he continued, adding that he accepted the invite and participated in efforts to place developmentally disabled adults in homes in many area communities, including Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Wilbraham.

In the late 90s, Meadows Homes merged with the Center for Human Development, and Sagalyn joined its board. He became chair in 2000 and has served in that capacity ever since. That’s longer than the norm, he said, but he’s been asked to stay on to help see the group through several projects — the latest being the current search for a new director.

“It’s a big time commitment … hardly a week goes by without something,” he explained. “But it’s important work and very rewarding work; I love doing it.”

Man of the Hour

Sagalyn told BusinessWest that the grandfather’s clock in his office kept perfect time until about a year ago when, upon his return from a vacation, he discovered that it had stopped and could not be restarted.

He says he will soon launch a search for someone who can fix it, preferably an individual who makes house calls (or, in this case, old mill calls) because this clock will be hard to move.

It’s a fixture at Cabotville, as is Sagalyn, who acknowleges now that his acquisition of the mill wasn’t merely a real estate deal. It was also an important career move.

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

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