The people who come to work for Higgins, Roberts & Suprunowicz usually don’t leave.
“Many people have been here for years and years and years,” said Michael Suprunowicz, president of the 175-year-old law firm. “I started with this firm and I never left. Chuck Assini started with this firm and never left. Many of our partners started with this firm, or came earlier in their careers, and never left. And there’s a reason for that.”
The reasons are actually many, and ones that allowed the company to celebrate its 175th anniversary on Thursday, as well as a prominent name change. Higgins, Roberts, Beyerl and Coan P.C. has officially changed its name to include Suprunowicz, who has been with the firm since 1980 and steered it through the last decade as president and managing shareholder.
“That reason is the culture, the people and the business — the love of the law,” said Suprunowicz from inside the firm’s offices at a company celebration held in his honor Thursday morning. “It’s special here. It is very, very special. And the name change represents a professional evolution, which is kind of the natural consequence and byproduct of the passage of time. But it in no way takes away from our heritage and I want people to understand that. We may change the name, but we are not changing who we are and where we came from.”
The firm, while technically located in Niskayuna off of Balltown Road, has long been considered a pillar of the Schenectady community among the businesses and organizations it represents, the boards it has members on, and the charities it has launched.
It’s unclear just how many law firms in the nation have lasted 175 years, but a quick search indicates the oldest of the old had their origins in the 19th century. Inside the Higgins, Roberts & Suprunowicz offices, two gilded-frame portraits hang of the firm’s founding father and his son: David Cady Smith and Everett Smith, respectively.
David Cady Smith began the firm in 1837 while serving as attorney for the Schenectady Savings Bank. His son Everett eventually joined the practice, while his other son Gerardus Smith had more a mind for business and founded The Daily Gazette back when it was known as the Schenectady Gazette in 1894.
The Smith family then brought state Sen. Edwin Miller on as a partner in 1911. As partners died, the firm continued to ensure it had successors in place, bringing on a line of prominent locals to serve the next generation of Schenectady clients. These included Harold Beyerl, and then Frank Higgins, followed by John Van Etten, James Houlihan, Richard Roberts and Edwin Beyerl (Harold Beyerl’s son). Robert Coan joined the firm in 1959 and retired in 2002. James Erceg joined in 1964 and retired in 2005.
Current partners at the firm remember their predecessors fondly and can list their names in a single breath. The firm’s name was always changing and evolving with time, but Suprunowicz emphasized that the firm’s core mission never changed: to serve, rather than to be served.
“Dick Roberts once said to me that when a client comes here we make it our business that when they leave here they feel better, they feel a burden relieved, they feel a problem solved,” recalled Suprunowicz. “They should feel better for having been a client of this firm, and I believe more than any other reason that is what drives the people of this firm.”
The firm handles cases ranging from estate and trust planning to taxation, insurance, bankruptcy and family law, to name a few. It’s worked with the Schenectady Foundation, Ellis Hospital and the former St. Clare’s Hospital, and their respective foundations, as well as the Chamber of Schenectady County, the Schenectady Day Nursery, the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, and many more local organizations and businesses. It has represented some of these groups at times, while others it has fundraised for or served on their boards.
While reflecting on the firm’s impact in the community, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy joked that he has dealt with the firm as both a friend and a foe during his more than 35 years in public service.
“There’s been times where this firm has actually sued me, or the board or the commission of what I’ve been a part of,” he said, to a room full of laughter. “And there’s been times when this firm has represented me. And I will tell you that you’re much better off having this firm representing you than having to be on the other side.”
Chamber President Chuck Steiner said the firm’s longevity is not a milestone he gets to celebrate often in the community. Union College President Stephen Ainlay couldn’t even figure out how far back the relationship between the college and the firm goes, because of the “many ways the two institutions have been related over the years.”
Suprunowicz, a Schenectady native and Linton High School graduate, chalked the 175-year milestone up to the local culture.
“Firms break apart,” he said. “They come, they go, they dissolve, partners dispute, partners die. But to come together as a firm and to then make a decision to stay together and continue is a business decision. Many high-profile attorneys decide to leave firms because they believe they can make more money on their own, so it’s also a cultural decision to stay together. And not everybody makes that decision.”