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Joining Forces

Springfield Law Firm Forges Partnership with Soldier On
Robinson Donovan managing partner Jeff McCormick

Robinson Donovan managing partner Jeff McCormick

Earlier this year, partners with the Springfield-based law firm Robinson Donovan initiated a search for a project — or a partnership (that’s a better term) — that would take its involvement with the community to a new and higher level. It found such an opportunity with the Northampton-based nonprofit Solider On, which is committed to fighting homelessness among veterans, as well as the many issues that contribute to it. It’s early in the process, and the work hasn’t officially started yet, but the affiliation holds enormous promise for enabling both entities to meet some ambitious goals.

John Downing says he walked into the conference room at Robinson Donovan with what would have to be considered modest expectations.

“I thought I’d meet some starchy lawyers who would say they’d be willing to help with a little pro-bono legal work, but would want to stay at arms-length from the people I serve,” said Downing, director of an organization called Solider On, referring to what was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting with several partners with the Springfield-based firm last spring.

What he walked out with close to two hours later was something much different — something much more. He had in his briefcase what amounted to a commitment to a partnership, one he firmly believes will help take his organization to some places that he might not even have dreamed of just over seven years ago when he interviewed for the job he now holds.

And that’s saying something, because Downing can dream pretty big.

For example, he doesn’t simply want to provide a roof over the heads of some homeless veterans — that’s one of the primary missions of this Northampton-based outfit, formerly known as United Veterans of America. He wants them to own the roof!

Indeed, he has plans in place for what will be called limited equity co-op apartments in Pittsfield that veterans, many of them struggling to keep their lives together, will own. These would be the first such units in the country, and they could potentially serve as a model for other regions.

That’s one of many ambitious projects Downing has in his head or working their way to the drawing board. And he expects lawyers at Robinson Donovan to help make them reality through avenues of assistance, the sum of which will likely go well beyond a few hours of pro-bono work.

“They met us where we needed to be met,” said Downing. “I could see that they really cared about the issue, and that they understood the intensity of need that we had — that we were operating essentially with social workers and clinicians, and we had a big business proposition to handle and were bereft of experience in that area. They wanted to have an impact.”

And this is what the principals at the 142-year-old firm were looking for, said Managing Partner Jeff McCormick. He told BusinessWest that the firm wanted to take its community involvement to a new and higher level, and several months ago commenced an indepth search for a non-profit with which to partner.

That’s a term McCormick used often as he relayed the story of how the firm, toward the start of its search, was introduced to Soldier On and its mission by Darby O’Brien, owner of the marketing firm that bears his name and handles matters for the firm. O’Brien had done some work for Soldier On over the years, and came to understand that the agency would need some help getting to where it wanted to go.

This led to that aforementioned meeting with Downing, who, said McCormick, conveyed a blend of commitment and passion that intrigued the assembled partners and gave them a firm understanding of an often overlooked problem in this country: the plight of homeless veterans.

The partnership is still what both McCormick and Downing called a work in progress, with no actual projects yet, but plenty of anticipation about what can happen when the two entities get down to business and actually join forces.

Deploying the Troops

Downing, who had been doing re-integration after-care work for the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office — essentially placing formerly incarcerated veterans into a homeless facility — told BusinessWest that he won’t soon forget many of the specifics of his interview for his current position. That includes the date and time — Sept. 11, 2001, at 4:30 in the afternoon.

He clearly recalls one question — and his answer — as he sought the directorship of what was the first homeless shelter to be located on the grounds of a Veterans Administration hospital (this one in Leeds), but that had fallen on some very hard times due largely to poor management.

“Someone asked me what I thought I could bring to the job,” he remembered. “I told them that everything I had done in my life until then had brought me to that point. I said I had the skills and the talent to do the job, and that if they gave me power to hire and fire — as well as a simple mission statement to hold me accountable to — that in a year I’d have that place going where it wanted to go.

“And they bought it.”

Thus far, Downing has delivered on his pledge. He cleaned house — literally and figuratively — firing 13 of the 16 employees and replacing them with individuals “who believed in what I wanted to do,” while also transforming the shelter into what he called a “Holiday Inn where people are really treated like guests.”

Today, the shelter, with 162 beds, is beyond capacity, while another, in Pittsfield, which has 62 beds and 11 studio apartments, is also full, but also handling overflow from the community’s homeless shelter.

But while reshaping those facilities, Downing said he’s also made great progress in fighting the causes of homelessness, and getting vets off what he called the “merry-go-round” that keeps them in shelters for years. And he’s making significant strides in advancing a home-ownership program that is exciting and potentially precedent-setting.

It involves limited-equity co-op apartments, the model for which is still being developed, that would house what Downing called “formerly homeless veterans,” a phrase he uttered with a strong dose of conviction and pride.

However, Downing knows he needs some help to make many of his visions reality, and he believes the partnership with Robinson Donovan will facilitate many of his initiatives.

So does McCormick.

Indeed, while the partnership will help Soldier On meet its aspirations, it will hopefully also enable Robinson Donovan to fulfill its goals for taking community involvement to that proverbial next level, said McCormick.

He said the firm and individual lawyers have provided pro-bono support to a host of groups and individuals — from the Greater Springfield YMCA to area residents unable to afford legal representation to help them navigate Housing Court and thus keep a roof over their heads.

But it desired to go further, and launched a comprehensive search for a partnership opportunity. That search essentially ended with Downing’s impressive presentation, suffused with an energy that McCormick called “contagious.”

“He’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and he has a real passion for what he does,” said McCormick, adding that, with his time before the firm’s partners, he not only described the problem and laid out his plans to combat it, but convinced those in the room that they could, and should, play a lead role in making it happen.

“We ultimately decided that this was a real opportunity for Robinson Donovan to do something good and work with a great community-based project,” he continued, adding that, given the duration and intensity of the war in Iraq, not to mention previous military endeavors, there will be need for such services for years, perhaps decades, to come.

When asked how the partnership will manifest itself, McCormick said there are a number of routes it can take. He listed several possibilities, from legal work on veteran-owned businesses to contractual assistance with the many housing initiatives that Downing has planned, to perhaps some financial support for marketing efforts that will help raise awareness of the organization and its mission.

“We’re still in the planning stages, and sometimes the biggest battle is getting things organized with regard to what the relationship is going to be,” he explained. “But we’ve committed certainly to using some of our marketing budget to help increase awareness of Soldier On and the issue of homelessness among veterans, and to provide our expertise to advance some of these projects.”

United Front

Summing up how the partnership between Robinson Donovan and Soldier On came to be, McCormick said that he and his fellow partners are open-minded, but also quite diligent about choosing projects and partners that will enable the firm to make a difference in the community and not simply gain some publicity.

“This was not something we entered into lightly,” he explained. “I see this as a long-term commitment, and that’s one of the things I stressed to the partners. This isn’t something where you go in thinking you’ll get some bang for the buck and a little exposure. That’s not what we’re doing — we’re in this for the long haul.”

Which is good, because so is Downing and his staff at Soldier On. He’s gone well beyond turning a troubled homeless shelter into the equivalent of a Holiday Inn. He’s put some ultra-ambitious plans on the table to effectively wage a fight against homelessness that will be fought on several fronts.

He knows it will take time, energy, and commitment to get all done — as well as a real partnership.

And now he has one.

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

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