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Robinson Donovan Celebrates 150 Years by Giving Back

Firm in Its Resolve

five of Robinson Donovan’s partners

From left, five of Robinson Donovan’s partners: Jeffrey Trapani, Michael Simolo, Nancy Frankel Pelletier, Carla Newton, and Managing Partner Jeffrey Roberts.

Robinson Donovan has experienced plenty of changes in its 150-year history, from shifting economic cycles to constantly evolving laws, to the evolution of its home city of Springfield. But one thing has remained a priority since its founder, George Robinson — who was also a high-school principal, state legislator, and governor — hung out a shingle in 1866. That is a focus on community — not just in a business sense, but through charity and volunteerism. And that’s how the firm is choosing to mark this significant anniversary.

Attorneys who have been with Robinson Donovan for any amount of time are fluent in its history, which stretches back 150 years — an anniversary the firm chose to celebrate by giving back.

Specifically, the firm traces its roots back to former Gov. George Robinson, who began practicing law in the Springfield area prior to serving as a member of the state House of Representatives and then Senate.

His contributions to the Springfield region extended beyond his appointments to public office. He was also the principal of Chicopee High School and a founding member of Chicopee Savings Bank, in addition to his law practice, now known as Robinson Donovan.

As the anniversary approached, said Carla Newton, a partner with the firm, one topic of discussion was the importance of place — how Greater Springfield itself, and its network of residents, businesses, and nonprofits are critical to the Robinson Donovan story.

“George Robinson was a public servant himself, and certainly served the public in a very direct way, so we began thinking about how to give back, rather than just celebrate internally,” she told BusinessWest. “And we began looking around at all the different nonprofits, many of which have board members and volunteers within our office. We thought it was appropriate to go beyond our own personal commitments to the community, and be a little more demonstrative and provide actual contributions.”

We all live here. We all benefit from the nonprofits that operate here, whether it be Providence Ministries or an educational institution like Bay Path University. We’ve raised families in this community and benefit from the fact that these organizations exist and make our community a better place to live.”

In lieu of some grand party or other event, that’s precisely how the firm chose to celebrate its anniversary year — with a sizable donation each month to a local nonprofit.

“We solicited input from everyone at the firm,” said Partner Michael Simolo. “As Carla said, a lot of us are involved in these organizations, and we know very well the people involved in them. It was kind of a collective effort from everyone to choose the organizations we donated to.”

“We all live here,” Newton added. “We all benefit from the nonprofits that operate here, whether it be Providence Ministries or an educational institution like Bay Path University. We’ve raised families in this community and benefit from the fact that these organizations exist and make our community a better place to live.”

Besides those two organizations, the firm has also donated to Friends of the Homeless, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Cutchins Center for Children, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Community Legal Aid, Dakin Humane Society, and the Gray House — with three more to be chosen before the calendar turns.

Looking Back

That calendar has turned 150 times since Robinson first set up shop, and Newton acknowledged that it’s difficult to determine all the reasons it has survived so long. But she had a few theories.

One is simply pride among the attorneys in how the firm does business. She recalled arriving at the firm — at the time much smaller than its roster of 17 lawyers — and getting the sense they cared about leaving the firm in good hands when they were gone — which involved not only treating clients with professionalism, but mentoring the younger lawyers. “There was a culture of continuation, and people like me ended up getting adopted into that culture.”

Nowadays, she added, growth comes from meeting specific needs. “We bring in someone to support a particular area, and we inculcate them into the culture, and it continues on. There’s no reason to believe this isn’t going to keep going, as the younger lawyers coming in here realize, ‘hey, someday this will be our firm.’”

Managing Partner Jeffrey Roberts added that longevity requires a strong reputation in the community as well. “Ultimately, there has to be some recognition of quality. People want service, they want value, and they want to feel they’re getting the best product available.”

That reputation translates into referrals, he added. “They say your clients come from your clients. Other lawyers say, ‘I don’t do that kind of work, but you should go to that lawyer.’ In the end, it’s a small community, and if you don’t carry your practice properly and honestly, word gets around. If people understand who we are, we’ll have no shortage of business.”

That culture, again, extends to its community outreach, Newton said. “We’re not a firm that says to people who come in, ‘you must find a place to volunteer.’ Everyone here, whether it’s administrative assistants, lawyers, paralegals, they all do volunteer work because it’s important to them. That just seems to be the type of individual who comes to work at Robinson Donovan. Our people are really committed to doing volunteer work.”

Service Network, receives a check from Carla Newton

Karen Blanchard, left, executive director at Providence Ministries Service Network, receives a check from Carla Newton, partner at Robinson Donovan, earlier this year as part of the law firm’s year-long series of donations to mark its 150th anniversary.

Partner Nancy Frankel Pelletier agreed. “It’s definitely part of the culture of the firm,” she said. “We encourage people to be active in things they have an interest in or a passion for. It’s never imposed on anyone or done out of obligation, but it’s what everyone does.”

Roberts noted that community involvement isn’t a one-way street, and firm members reap benefits beyond feeling good about themselves. “If you contribute to an organization, they benefit; on the other hand, you benefit because you learn about what the organization does, and you meet a lot of different people, and you get invested more in the community, rather than just getting in your car, going to work, taking care of your client matters, and going home. There’s a networking component that can lead you to other organizations.”

New hires, especially those coming from outside the area, are encouraged to find organizations that speak to them, as a way to get a real sense of what’s happening outside the walls and glass windows high above Main Street in Tower Square.

“Then it tends to build,” Roberts said, “because you’re recognized, and then someone else might ask you to help out at a function or support a cause or go to a dinner, and it builds on itself. It’s part of your education in the community.”

Looking Ahead

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 — more than 30 lawyers worked there as recently as 15 years ago, when it was known as Robinson Donovan Madden & Barry — business has been steadily growing in virtually all those specialties, and the practice is on the rise again, hiring eight attorneys over the past several years, bringing the current roster to 16, with plans to possibly expand further.

“The firm is very dynamic and forward-thinking,” Simolo said. “We are celebrating our 150th, but at the same time, the firm is making some big investments in the future.”

Partner Jeffrey Trapani said the fact that economic development has been on the rise in Springfield, and the surrounding region is a quality-of-life draw, are added enticements when hiring.

“People get down on Springfield, but this region, I think, attracts people,” he told BusinessWest. “People enjoy coming to this area. We have city centers, things to do, you can see art, hear music, get outside, and still be close to Boston and New York.”

Trapani and Simolo count themselves among the former newcomers mentored by Roberts and his peers, but are now part of a middle generation rising to leadership and taking on much of that mentoring responsibility for new attorneys. That perpetuates the firm’s constant evolution, with some of the more recent hires chosen to match growth fields, including trusts and estates, corporate transaction law, labor and employment, domestic relations, and subspecialties like green energy.

“There’s such a broad scope of experience in this office,” Newton said. “So I can go to one of the associates and talk to them about something. They’ll learn from me, but I’ll also learn from them. When I sit in Jeff’s office or Nancy’s office, cross-learning takes place. Every single day, there are opportunities to sit down and talk about an issue with someone else. Not a day goes by that I don’t learn some new nuance that’s helpful to something I’m working on.”

It’s an environment some find unusual at first, Frankel Pelletier said, “but it’s the only environment I’ve ever known my entire career. We are just an open-door, collaborative community of lawyers.”

In short, 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, the firm is 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.

“Unlike some other firms from the area, we really maintain a statewide presence,” said Frankel Pelletier, who was the firm’s first-ever female attorney. “We have always maintained that statewide presence and attained regional and, in some senses, national recognition. Our attorneys are constantly being recognized by organizations they belong to. That is who we are.”

Well, that and a law firm with a strong commitment to the community that has helped it thrive for 150 years.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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