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VIEWPOINT: Legal Eagles: The Story of Hancock Estabrook, LLP

By Thomas Hunter

Date:

A long legal legacy in Central New York

Walking into the bright, modern lobby of the law firm of Hancock Estabrook, LLP, it’s easy to forget that the firm traces its Syracuse business roots as far back as 1889. That is the year that Theodore E. Hancock founded the firm of Hancock, Beach, Peck, & Devine, located in the White Memorial Building on East Washington Street. 

T. Hancock

Hancock, who was born on May 30, 1847, was raised in the town of Granby in Oswego County. Educated first at the Falley Seminary in Fulton, he graduated from Wesleyan University, then received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1873. After his admission to the bar, Hancock moved to Syracuse and established his first law firm, Gilbert & Hancock, with William Gilbert. The firm was located at the corner of Montgomery and East Fayette Streets, the future site of the Yates Hotel.

Hancock dissolved his partnership with Gilbert sometime in 1876, going into practice for himself. In 1878, he became a justice of the peace of the Third Ward, then joined with J. Page Munro to form Hancock & Munro, with an office located in the Syracuse Savings Bank. Parting ways with Munro after several years, Hancock joined Harrison Hoyt and William A. Beach to establish the firm of Hoyt, Beach, & Hancock, moving to 27-30 White Memorial Building. In 1889, the law firm added Walter James Devine, becoming Hoyt, Beach, Hancock, & Devine. This set the foundation for the firm that would one day become Hancock Estabrook, LLP. 

PHOTO CREDIT: HANCOCK ESTABROOK Timothy P. Murphy, current managing partner of Hancock Estabrook, LLP

Beach was a prominent Democrat who was keenly interested in supporting other New York state Democrats, such as Horatio Seymour, Samuel Tilden, and Grover Cleveland, for various political positions. He served as attorney for the Syracuse Water Board and promoted the efforts of the Skaneateles Lake Water Supply Project, beginning in 1894, to provide water to the City of Syracuse. 

Devine had been a professional baseball pitcher, pitching for teams in Richmond, Virginia; Terre Haute, Indiana; and Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1884, then for the Syracuse Stars from 1885 to 1886. In May 1887, Devine was traded to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, his last team. As a pitcher, Devine won only seven of the 23 games in which he took the mound during the course of his career. Nonetheless, H. J. Ormsby, manager of the Syracuse Stars, said of his player after Devine’s death, “We all knew him as a good fellow and he was a wonderful pitcher for his day. He pitched for the Stars in the famous game against Chicago here on July 5, 1885, when he allowed the visitors but five hits and they were shut out 5 to 0.” Devine began his legal career as a junior member of the firm in 1889 and was its managing clerk. His career and life were cut short when he died from lung trouble in 1905 at the age of 46. 

PHOTO CREDIT: HANCOCK ESTABROOK The law firm achieved another milestone in 2010, with the election of Janet D. Callahan as its first woman managing partner.

Charles H. Peck joined the law firm for a short time in 1889, having studied law with Judge Henry Reigel. He soon discovered, however, that his true joy was writing articles and books on political and economic history, not practicing law. He left the firm and spent much of his time thereafter researching and writing articles for the Magazine of American History. He moved to New York City in the early 1890s, eventually writing “The Jacksonian Epoch,” 400 pages of which were devoted to the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Ten years later he returned to Syracuse, establishing the law firm of Miller & Peck with H.E. Miller. Not much is known about Peck after that. For a man dedicated to recording the history of others, his own history seems to have ended mysteriously. 

Theodore E. Hancock served as Onondaga County district attorney from 1889 until 1892. The following year, he was elected New York State attorney general, serving in that position for six years. As attorney general, Hancock successfully argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Hancock also focused his effort on preserving the forests of New York state. In 1899, Hancock made an unsuccessful bid to become Syracuse’s mayor, losing to the incumbent Democrat, James K. McGuire, known as the “Boy Mayor of Syracuse.” One of Hancock’s notable cases was defending John Wilkinson, an engineer who invented an air-cooled motor for the Franklin automobile, made in Syracuse. Wilkinson’s former employer, the New York Automobile Company, accused him of providing a design he had created for the firm to its competition, the H. H. Franklin Manufacturing Company. Hancock succeeded in getting the case dismissed, paving the way for the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company to produce its distinguished air-cooled automobile in Syracuse for the next 32 years. 

Beach retired and John W. Hogan joined the firm, forming Hancock, Hogan & Devine. When Devine passed away in 1907, Theodore Hancock’s son, Stewart Freeman Hancock, joined the firm, having graduated from Wesleyan University in 1905 and Syracuse University College of Law in 1907. Theodore’s other son, Clarence Eugene Hancock, joined the firm after graduating from Wesleyan University in 1906 and New York Law School in 1908. 

Theodore Hancock played a principal leadership role in the movement to create Clinton Square’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He was instrumental in getting the county to issue bonds to subsidize the fabrication and erection of the monument, whose cornerstone was laid on Decoration Day, May 31, 1909. In recognition of Hancock’s guidance on the project, his name is etched on the northern side of the monument’s base. 

The law firm was next known as Hancock, Hogan & Hancock until 1912, when Hogan left the firm after he was appointed to the Court of Appeals. Clarence Z. Spriggs joined the firm, which then became Hancock, Spriggs & Hancock and comprised Theodore Hancock, his sons Stewart and Clarence, Spriggs, and Myron S. Melvin.

Stewart Hancock catapulted his way into the legal spotlight early in his career. In 1914, he was appointed as junior counsel for former President Theodore Roosevelt when Roosevelt was sued for libel by William Barnes, publisher of the Albany Evening Journal and Republican state chairman. Roosevelt had accused Barnes of colluding with the Democratic state chairman to control the state government, to the detriment of its citizens. The notable trial was moved from Albany to Syracuse, which was deemed a more neutral venue. The trial lasted more than five weeks, with Roosevelt taking the stand for eight days and testifying that his remarks were true and could be proven. A unanimous jury acquitted Roosevelt of libel, effectively ending Barnes’ influence and causing him to leave his state and party positions.

Theodore Hancock died on Nov. 19, 1916, at the age of 69. On the day after his passing, the Syracuse Herald newspaper stated that he “eminently deserved all the admiration and good will it was his lot to command in a community that knew him well and fully appreciated his sterling qualities. Faithful always to his clients and to his official obligations, he was faithful, too, to all the claims of friendship. Among the leading men of Syracuse whose privilege it is in a special degree to set the community standard of good citizenship, few men have wrought efficaciously and creditably as Theodore Hancock.” 

Prior to his father’s death, Stewart Hancock became assistant corporation counsel for the City of Syracuse. The following year, he became corporation counsel, serving in that capacity until 1919. In 1921, he became president of City Bank Trust Company which, at the time, was faltering. Within two years, Stewart had completely reorganized the bank and restored it to solvency. 

In 1916, Clarence Hancock joined other members of the Third Infantry Regiment of the New York State National Guard in a failed attempt to capture Pancho Villa, the notorious Mexican revolutionary leader, chasing him along the Texas border. Clarence also served as a captain with the 104th Machine Gun Battalion in France during World War I. He was cited for bravery during combat and awarded the Citation Star (later becoming the Silver Star). After World War I, Clarence served as corporation counsel for the City of Syracuse for one year, following which he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He continued to serve as U.S. Congressman for 19 years, being re-elected nine times. While in Congress, Clarence Hancock opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and served on the Judiciary and Naval Affairs Committees. He declined to seek re-election in 1946 due to poor health and succumbed two years later to a heart attack at age 62. Syracuse Hancock International Airport and Hancock Field Air National Guard Base are both named to honor the legacy of Clarence Hancock’s military, legal, and congressional accomplishments.

Carl E. Dorr became a partner of the law firm in 1921 and Benjamin E. Shove was named a firm partner in 1925, at which point the firm was known as Hancock, Dorr, Spriggs & Shove. Dorr had been captain of the Syracuse University football team in 1899. He was a member of the New York State Republican Committee and an ardent philatelist and political memorabilia collector. At one time, Dorr’s collection numbered about 4,000 pieces, some dating back to the 18th century. The Carl E. and Amelia Morgan Dorr Collection of Presidential Campaign Memorabilia is housed at Syracuse University Libraries.

Benjamin Shove in 1936 helped found the Syracuse Peace Council, the oldest local, autonomous, grassroots peace and social-justice organization in the United States. Shove was passionately committed to nonviolence and peace initiatives. He also was a leader in planning community health services. His efforts laid the foundation for developing communitywide health services and establishing Community General Hospital in Syracuse. A keen student of the Bible, Shove also was a leader of the Interchurch Center in Syracuse.

Between 1928 and 1938, Jesse E. Kingsley became a partner and the firm became known as Hancock, Dorr, Kingsley & Shove. A leading trial attorney, Kingsley left the firm in 1938 to become a State Supreme Court justice, a position he held until his retirement in 1955. 

When Howard D. Bailey, senior partner of the Syracuse firm Bailey, Ryan & Agan, died suddenly in an auto accident in 1937, his partners, Lewis C. Ryan and Arthur W. Agan, joined the firm, which then became Hancock, Dorr, Ryan & Shove. Ryan was described in Syracuse’s Post-Standard newspaper as “one of the nation’s most influential men in the field of law and a prime mover in the growth of Syracuse University.” Born in South Otselic in 1891, Ryan earned his law degree at Syracuse University in 1912. He gained a reputation as an outstanding trial attorney and was inducted into the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers. Along with being a successful attorney, Ryan supported his alma mater, Syracuse University, by raising funds for Manley Field House, now known as the John A. Lally Athletics Complex. He was a member of the university’s board of trustees and the Varsity Club, a director of the Syracuse University Alumni Association and the Alumni Fund, and president of the Syracuse Alumni Club. Ryan died suddenly of an apparent heart attack while attending a funeral mass for a long-time friend at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in downtown Syracuse. 

Stewart Hancock guided the law firm, which had become Hancock, Ryan, Shove & Hust in 1965 when Raymond Hust became a partner, until his death in 1966. Even though by then he was legally blind, Stewart continued to go to the office even at the age of 81. Stewart was affectionately known as “Mr. Syracuse” for always doing what he felt was best for the city’s citizens. He worked to keep the Community Chest solvent. He was involved with Shove in establishing Community General Hospital and was instrumental in establishing the Frank H. Hiscock Legal Aid Society to provide legal assistance to those in need. Stewart Hancock passed away on Nov. 13, 1966, at age 83. 

Hust became a senior partner at Hancock, Ryan, Shove & Hust in 1967. Two years later, he orchestrated the firm’s migration from the Hills Building at 217 Montgomery St. to the MONY Tower, located at One MONY Plaza, the firm’s first move since 1928. The firm is still located in what is now known as Equitable Tower I, occupying the three top floors of the 19-story building. 

Hancock, Ryan, Shove & Hust merged with Estabrook, Burns, Hancock & White in 1969, combining two of the oldest and best-known law firms in the city. The attorneys and staff of the Estabrook firm moved to the MONY Tower in 1970, forming Hancock, Estabrook, Ryan, Shove & Hust. The Estabrook firm offered clients a pool of 49 attorneys. Key attorneys at the firm included Charles Estabrook, James P. Burns, Jr., A. Van W. Hancock, and Hamilton S. White.

Burns, a life resident of Syracuse, earned his law degree from Syracuse University Law School in 1930. In addition to his legal career, he served for many years as VP and secretary of J.P. Burns & Son Funeral Directors, founded by his grandfather. He was VP of the Syracuse Stormers Football Club and a member of Syracuse Rotary Club, University Club of Syracuse, Cavalry Club, and Starlight Dance Club. Burns remained with the firm until his retirement in 1988. 

A. Van W. Hancock graduated from Harvard Law School in 1924 and practiced law in Syracuse for more than 60 years. In 1959, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller named him chair of the New York Committee of the 1960 White House Conference for Children and Youth. Van was chair of the Onondaga County Mental Health Board and president of the Council of Social Agencies of Onondaga County, Inc., the Syracuse Dispensary, Inc., and the Children’s Bureau of Syracuse. Van also served as president of the New York State Communities Aid Association, a voluntary organization devoted to developing community services throughout New York state. A. Van W. Hancock died in 1993 and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

Hamilton S. White graduated from Cornell University’s law school in 1942 and practiced law in Syracuse for more than 40 years as an associate and then partner at Estabrook, Burns, Hancock & White. After the firm merged with the Hancock firm, White became chair of the executive committee of Hancock, Ryan, Shove & Hust. He was a member of the Central New York Community Foundation’s board of directors and president and counsel for the Syracuse Home Association. He also served as secretary and board member of Oakwood Cemeteries, Inc. White, who died in March of 1983, is interred in Oakwood Cemetery.

Hon. Stewart F. Hancock, Jr., Theodore’s grandson, started his legal career at the firm. He served for 15 years as a State Supreme Court and Appellate Division judge before Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 1986. Following his service on the bench, Judge Hancock returned to Hancock Estabrook and continued to practice law until his death in 2014. During his years of practice, Judge Hancock was an ardent opponent of New York’s death penalty, arguing in opposition to the death penalty before the Court of Appeals. He remained active into his 90s, continuing his lifelong pursuits of skiing, golf, sailing and tennis. In the office, he was fond of clearing his mind by doing a headstand in the corner. 

The Hancock legacy, starting with founder Theodore E. Hancock, continues with Marion Hancock Fish, daughter of Stewart F. Hancock, Jr. and great granddaughter of Theodore, who has been with the firm since the 1980s. Fish is a partner, who focuses her practice on estate planning and elder law. 

The firm was known as Hancock, Estabrook, Ryan, Shove & Hust from 1970-1984, when it was renamed Hancock & Estabrook, LLP. Doreen Simmons became the firm’s first woman partner and the first woman partner in a major law firm in the Syracuse area in 1980. Prior to joining the firm, Simmons was the first woman assistant district attorney in the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office. She developed a practice as a highly regarded environmental lawyer. Also in the early 1980s, the law firm opened upstate offices in Hamilton and Albany. 

Hancock & Estabrook celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1989. Among the firm’s prominent local clients at the time were Syracuse University, General Electric, Marine Midland Bank, New York Telephone, and Miller Brewery. The law firm focused on expanding its marketing practices during the next decade, steadily increasing the legal services it provided to existing clients and attracting new clients. During this time, the firm was led by William Carroll (Nick) Coyne as chair of the executive committee. Following Coyne’s retirement, Walter L. Meagher, Jr. was elected managing partner in 1989. He was followed successively by Donald A. Denton and Richard W. Cook. The leadership of these firm members allowed the firm to continue to grow and prosper into the 21st century.

The law firm achieved another milestone in 2010, with the election of Janet D. Callahan as its first woman managing partner and the first woman partner at a major law firm in upstate New York. Before being named managing partner, Callahan was also the first woman elected to the firm’s executive committee.

The firm expanded into Tompkins County, opening an Ithaca office in 2015. It also opened a Utica office. The law firm also underwent another name change — this one somewhat smaller, deleting the & — and becoming Hancock Estabrook, LLP. 

Under current Managing Partner Timothy P. Murphy, the law firm has continued to expand its ranks, taking on several groups of attorneys including Shulman Grundner Etoll & Danaher, P.C., The Law Firm of Frank W. Miller, and Susan L. King of Miller King. Hancock Estabrook currently represents an array of clients ranging from individuals to domestic and international corporations to middle-market businesses to startups, including a number of organizations in the health sector, as well as school districts, colleges, universities, municipalities, public corporations, nonprofits, and tax-exempt organizations. Hancock Estabrook currently employs 120 people, almost half of whom are women and/or members of minority communities. 

The law firm has always placed great value on its role as a community leader, encouraging both attorneys and staff to become involved with a variety of nonprofit organizations. The firm played a role in Onondaga County’s bicentennial commemoration. In conjunction with the Onondaga Historical Association, it sponsored a bicentennial tree for the Everson Museum of Art’s Festival of Trees which features hand-crafted tree ornaments highlighting various facets of Onondaga County’s diverse history and culture, including the Onondaga Nation. Hancock Estabrook continues to support more than 50 local nonprofit organizations, donating money and time to many worthy causes. It has been a long-time supporter of the United Way campaign. Each year since 2010, the firm has held a Community Service Day, sending its employees out to various nonprofit organizations to provide services ranging from weeding gardens to painting buildings to serving meals, stuffing envelopes, cleaning kennels, and other jobs. 

Named a 2023 Best Law Firm by U.S. News & World Report, Hancock Estabrook is a well-established and distinguished law firm that undoubtedly will continue to provide first-rate legal counsel well into the 21st century.      


Thomas Hunter is curator of collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.

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