December 30, 2012

Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd: ‘Sum of many parts’

Greenville in 1887 was a town on the rise.

Greenville in 1887 was a town on the rise.

Cotton was booming with three textile mills working around the clock. The town’s 9,200 residents were looking forward to the installation of the first public water system and electric lights. And 50 homes had already been outfitted with a new invention called the telephone.

It was a good time for a lawyer with connections to start a practice. Harry John Haynsworth, a Furman alumnus and son-in-law and cousin of the school’s president, did just that — in a room over a grocery store on Main Street.

That fledgling practice was the beginning of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd – which this year celebrated its 125th anniversary.

A merger at the beginning of 2001 established the firm in all three regions of the state — Haynsworth of Greenville, Sinkler of Charleston and Boyd of Columbia – making it one of the largest firms in the Carolinas.

“We’re the sum of many parts,” said shareholder William C. “Bill” Boyd, whose father, William C. “Crip” Boyd, founded the Boyd Bruton & Lumpkin firm in Columbia in 1951.

The firm — which provides business, litigation, and financial legal services and government relations to national and international clients — has had many milestones throughout the years. Among them:

•  In Charleston in 1916, Hugh Sinkler Sr., then a member of the S.C. Senate from Charleston and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, changed the way the state and its municipalities and other entities issued bonds for projects like roads, water system and schools, streamlining the process.

Sinkler grew up in Eutaw Springs, was admitted to the Charleston Bar and started with humble roots in an upstairs office at 15 Broad St. He went into partnership with Jacob W. Nathan and his two sons, and together they became, for more than 60 years, the only municipal bond attorneys in the state.

In those days, investors demanded legal opinions that the bonds were lawful and could not be later renounced by the borrowing municipality. Such opinions were issued only by law firms in large cities like New York. One day, a local government in South Carolina was turned down for a bond issue by a big city bond counsel. The underwriter decided to consult Sinkler (coincidentally, the underwriter’s brother-in-law), who gave an opinion that the bonds would be legally binding obligations of the local government.

The bonds sold locally and were successful.

“Mr. Sinkler’s opinion thus became accepted in the market,” said Steve Matthews, a shareholder in today’s firm and a former managing director. “That was quite a coup.”

•  In Greenville in 1918, James M. Perry was admitted to practice law in South Carolina. The remarkable thing was that “Jim” Perry was a woman, and became South Carolina’s first female attorney — two years before women were extended the right to vote.

Perry, the third daughter of James M. Perry, a professor at Greenville Women’s College, was named after her father.

“He wanted a boy and she was his last chance at it,” said Anne Ellefson, who today heads the Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd firm and is the first female to lead a South Carolina-based firm with more than 100 attorneys.

“Miss Jim,” as she was called, received her law degree from the University of California at Berkley, and in addition to being the state’s first female attorney, would also become the first female partner in a law firm, with Haynsworth & Haynsworth.

“She was a very bright and obviously very motivated to have been as successful as she was at that time and place,” Ellefson said.

•  In Columbia in 1978, one of the Boyd firm’s attorneys, Kirkman Finlay, Jr., became mayor of Columbia.

Finlay was a wellspring of ideas for transforming the city’s blighted downtown and hidden riverfront.

From his law office in a downtown high-rise, Finlay would gaze out his window to the west and muse about the potential of the roughneck, railroad-scarred, 100-block warehouse district between Assembly Street and the Congaree River.

After Finlay removed or relocated the web of railroads tracks around Gervais, artists began gravitating to the area’s brick warehouses, drawn by low rents and a funky feel. It would later become the Congaree Vista, one of the city’s main arts and entertainment districts.

“He clearly was thinking outside the box,” said John McArthur, today a member of the Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd management committee. “He took people’s frustration with trains stopping traffic on Gervais Street and turned that into what would become the Congaree Vista. Most people wouldn’t have that kind of vision.”

Finlay was 56 when he died of brain cancer in 1993. He didn’t live to see his vision for Columbia realized. The 14-acre Sidney Park at Hampton and Laurel streets was renamed Finlay Park. A bronze, life-sized statue of Finlay sits on a park bench near a man-made waterfall.

In 2001, the three firms merged to form Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, due in large part to the efforts of Bill Boyd.

Today, the firm has more than 130 attorneys and offices in five South Carolina cities and Washington, D.C.

“It was a marriage of equals,” Boyd said. “It made sense to have the spread between Greenville, Columbia and Charleston. It brought a lot of different areas of expertise into one firm.”

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