By Michael Petro, originally published in Buffalo Business First on April 10, 2017.
The partners at Phillips Lytle strive to maintain a connection to a history that dates back nearly two centuries to 1834. That was apparent to attorney Patrick Fitzgerald from his first day at the Buffalo law firm in 2012.
In addition to seeing artifacts around the office and hearing stories about how long-ago partners shaped the firm, Fitzgerald, then a new associate, received a copy of “Firm Beliefs,” a book published in 2009 about the history of Phillips Lytle. He didn’t take long to read it in its entirety. Indeed, he had reason to, considering a connection to the firm that nobody knew about until recently.
Former Managing Partner Morgan Graham had been in Fitzgerald’s office many times since 2012, as they both practice environmental law and have offices next to one another. But one day, Graham noticed on the wall of his co-worker a framed photo and document and inquired about them. It was a copy of a certificate from one of the firm’s most influential early partners, Wilson Bissell, when he became U.S. Postmaster General, and a picture of Bissell taken when he was part of President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet.
Soon after, the law firm discovered that Fitzgerald is a descendant of Bissell, who worked with Cleveland at the law firm when it was known as Bass Cleveland & Bissell.
Grover Cleveland was a partner at the growing firm for nine years and Bissell for more than 30 years, starting in 1872. Turns out that Bissell is Fitzgerald’s great-great-great uncle.
“Morgan Graham took an interest in it and thought it was a neat thing from the firm perspective,” said Fitzgerald, now a senior associate focusing on environmental law. “When I told him, he was in shock. He wondered why I never mentioned it before. Having these two items in my office is something I always think about, and for me personally, I’ve always felt a close affinity for the firm on that basis alone.”
Despite his family pride, Fitzgerald didn’t mention the connection when he was hired.
“It would have been an interesting talking point but I just never felt I should bring it up,” he said.
When David McNamara became managing partner just before the firm’s 175th anniversary, Phillips Lytle decided to publish “Firm Beliefs” and McNamara started looking through the archives. He spent countless hours with local writer and author Dick Hirsch, a Buffalo Business First columnist, gathering information for the book.
“To have a descendant of such a prominent person in the firm’s history involved in the firm today is pretty fascinating,” said McNamara, who stepped down as managing partner late last year and returned full time to his litigation practice there. “It gives you a sense of connection to the past.”
He added: “It’s not something that (Fitzgerald) has been waving around like a flag. That made it doubly interesting to find out he had that connection.”
Fitzgerald learned from family stories, history books and old news articles that Bissell was Cleveland’s friend and confidant. Cleveland eventually left the firm to become New York governor and asked Bissell to accept political appointments and eventually serve in his cabinet. Bissell became U.S. Postmaster General in 1893 and served until 1895. According to Fitzgerald, Bissell later declined an appointment to Supreme Court and eventually left politics behind for retirement.
“He was a diehard Buffalo guy at heart whose claim to fame was being a really good lawyer,” Fitzgerald said of Bissell. “It shows the type of guy he was. He didn’t like to be in the limelight; he liked to work behind the scenes.”
Bissell may not have been as well-known as Cleveland, but it was he who actually brought his friend and colleague into Bissell’s then-partnership with Lyman Bass. Bissell’s name was on the firm’s moniker from 1872-1906.
Said Fitzgerald: “When you hear Phillips Lytle, people always associate it first with Grover Cleveland, but he and Bissell were almost like the same person. One was with each other all the time.”
While studying for the bar exam and living with his grandmother on the Bissell side, he said she was thrilled when Fitzgerald landed an interview at Phillips Lytle. He said there is a history of lawyering in the family but it skipped a generation before his own legal pursuits.
“It was a really important piece of my grandmother’s family history and she was interested in the firm and kept track of them,” he said. “When I did accept the offer, it was a big deal for her.”
Not long after, however, she died.
“I still look at that as something I was proud of — to be able to get hired here before she passed away,” Fitzgerald said. “She knew the legacy was carrying on.”
The law firm traces its founding in Buffalo to just two years after the city’s incorporation.
“Frankly, there’s a lot to be proud of and a lot to form our behavior and beliefs today based on that history,” he said.
An enduring culture
In his research, McNamara traced the central themes of the firm’s culture to founder Orsamus Marshall, who stressed professional service, the highest ethical standards and a willingness to take on challenges facing clients.
An unbroken chain of partnership is a hallmark, as well. The firm was renamed 34 times before it became Phillips Lytle LLP in 2003, a shortened version of the name Phillips Lytle Hitchcock Blaine & Huber.
“I learned a lot more about the contributions that partners long deceased or long retired made to this community,” McNamara said. “It really became very gratifying to have a better understanding of the firm’s significance in a variety of cultural, civic and charitable institutions that are very significant today.”
The firm’s strong growth is attributed in part to Walter Cooke, who became a partner in 1897 and stayed on for more than 30 years. In 1906, he recruited partner Daniel Kenefick, who was at the firm for 43 years. They helped establish the foundation for what the firm would become in later years.
According to the firm, partners such as Edward Letchworth, George Phillips and William Lytle continued to focus on expansion as the city of Buffalo grew. At the time, the firm was counsel to Marine Trust Co., which later became Marine Midland Bank. McNamara said the bank and law firm grew together.
A Rochester office was added by way of a merger with a banking firm in 1982. Shortly after, the firm expanded to New York City and established an office in Jamestown to serve a corporate client in the Southern Tier. More recently, the firm opened offices in Albany, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
“As time went on and I became part of management of the firm,” McNamara said, “you certainly feel a sense of commitment to the continued success of the institution because of its very significant history that we’re all proud of.”
When Fitzgerald started looking for a job, he wanted to be in Buffalo, he said — just like his great-great-great uncle, who eventually left Washington, D.C., purchased a home on Delaware Avenue and returned to the hometown that he had greatly missed. He died a few years later in 1903.
“I guess that shows where Buffalo ranked in his heart,” Fitzgerald said.