Frederick R. Nance: The Legal Futurists who Helped Remake a Great City

Frederick R. Nance
2024 Feature Nominations

Cleveland has recovered from an identity crisis. Since early in its development, the city blazed as a hotbed of prosperity and innovation, a place where natural resources intersected with American ingenuity and industry to ignite a humming society. From the Civil War era and through the Industrial Age, the manufacture of iron and steel products rendered Cleveland a hub for the great industrialists and eventually became the first home of American automakers. By 1920, it was the fifth largest city in the United States and boasted a lifestyle to rival that found in New York City.

Attorneys played a role in shaping the city’s character from early days. Notable law firms emerged to further the advancement of commerce, many of which endure today as some of the nation’s – and the world’s – legal powerhouses.

Cleveland’s decline to rust-belt status in the latter part of the last century, marked by social unrest, a crumbling infrastructure and a declining economic outlook, was simply at odds with its dazzling identity of the past. Looking back for inspiration, and fueled by opportunities generated in the new economy, community leaders have succeeded in restoring their city’s grand heritage – and attorneys have led the charge.

One Man’s Influence There is arguably no one person whose name is more synonymous with Cleveland’s return to glory than attorney Frederick R. Nance, regional managing partner at the international law firm Squire Patton Boggs, founded in 1890.

A native son of Cleveland, Nance grew up in the inner city. His father was an auto worker, and his mother stayed at home to raise the family’s six children. During the turbulent 1960s, Nance recalls “watching Jeeps with machine guns roll down the streets and people throwing bricks through storefront windows. That is largely what inspired me to become a lawyer. I figured there was a better way to do things, and by being part of the legal system, I could effect change in a positive way, instead of the way that was unfolding in front of me.”

Early on, Nance realized that the schools he attended would impact both his career opportunities and his ability to assist the community and people he cared about. From Saint Ignatius High School, he went on to earn his undergraduate degree from Harvard, and finally, his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan.

“I had no contacts with the legal community before law school,” Nance said. “I think I had only ever met one attorney before in my life. I came back to Cleveland and found that there were a number of prominent law firms here, and I was fortunate to start my career with what was then Squire Sanders & Dempsey.”

Thirty-seven years later, Nance is a pacesetter at Squire Patton Boggs, one of the world’s most influential law firms, with more than 1,500 attorneys in 44 offices around the globe. A commercial litigator with many noteworthy victories to his credit, Nance is also widely recognized for his work in sports and entertainment law, as well as his tireless contributions to Cleveland’s civic landscape.

The firm’s comprehensive representation in both business and government affairs catapulted Nance into the public sector, where he has sought to “bring the resources of the private sector to civic priorities in a way that fulfilled my long-term goal of doing well and doing good at the same time. I’ve been very blessed to be able to do both from this platform.”

After Nance participated in successfully defending a prominent city councilman in a criminal matter, achieving a directed verdict on all counts, he became well-known among public officials in Cleveland. He also earned the notice of Mayor Michael White, and became primary outside counsel to the city and mayor throughout White’s administration. “He was a force of nature, and an inner-city kid himself,” Nance recalled. “He began transforming the landscape and moving Cleveland from the old and into the new economy. When I was growing up, Cleveland was all heavy manufacturing. Back then, you could move into the middle class working in those industries – my dad put six of us through college and graduate school with a job at GM. But by the early ’90s, it was clear that the economy was changing, and Cleveland had to find a way to make the transition. Mayor White spearheaded all sorts of economic development projects and trusted me to go to the table to negotiate high stakes deals that moved our community forward.”

The Business of Professional Sports One of the most notable controversies of the time was the battle to keep the Browns in Cleveland. Nance was at the forefront as the lead trial lawyer who negotiated the deal to bring the prodigal Browns home after then-owner, Art Modell, moved his franchise to Baltimore.

“It was a crazy time for Cleveland,” Nance said. “There were protests – even threats of violence – people were rising up to save our NFL Cleveland Browns franchise. This was the transition period from shared football/baseball stadiums to single-purpose facilities. Cleveland Browns fans were still turning out 80,000+ per game, but the economics did not work in the modern age. Team owners had to generate revenue out of their stadiums to be competitive, and that required modern premium seating.”

Just prior to the Browns saga, the Cleveland Indians and the Cleveland Cavaliers had found their solution to the modern facility dilemma by finding new homes in the downtown Gateway Complex that housed Jacobs Field and Gund Arena. Prior to that the Cavaliers were actually playing some 40 miles outside of downtown Cleveland at Richfield Coliseum.

The solution for the Browns was achieved through negotiations led by Nance between Cleveland, Baltimore, Modell and the NFL that ultimately allowed for a new Browns franchise to be reestablished back in Cleveland, retaining all of the team’s intellectual property, while Modell retained his players and contracts in Baltimore, assuming a new name – the Ravens. During a three-year deactivation period, a new stadium would be built for the Browns. The Browns played their first season at FirstEnergy Stadium in 1999. Nance later served as the team’s general counsel from 2009-2012.

Through these difficult years, local attorneys spearheaded the creative solutions that guaranteed the success of all three professional sports dynasties, preserving their legacies and helping them to deliver a better entertainment experience to fans. In addition to his own contributions, Nance names Tony Garafoli, Dick Watson, Kristen Ubersax, Tom Wagner and David Goodman as just a few of his colleagues who figured prominently in the Gateway project. “None of this would be in downtown Cleveland if not for these attorneys who put the deal and financing together to make that dream a reality,” Nance said.

Of course, no discussion of professional sports in Cleveland is complete without mention of hometown NBA superstar, LeBron James. Nance met James when he was still a high school phenom. Within a year, James was in the national spotlight as an unprecedented NBA rookie talent with roughly $100 million in contracts. Nance has represented him ever since.

Now that James has returned to play again for the Cavaliers, the city is benefiting from the economic explosion of direct and indirect spending that a champion caliber professional sports team can bring to a city, an opportunity that would have been lost to the city but for the visionary leaders who ensured that Gateway Plaza was built.

Further proof of Nance’s professional sports expertise came when he was asked to stand as a candidate for NFL commissioner in 2006. One of the final five out of 300 candidates, he describes the time he spent with each of the 32 owners as “a real honor. I enjoyed every moment of it.”

Cultural Comeback Sports are not the only form of entertainment to have impacted Cleveland’s revitalization, and the city’s legal lights have again played a vital role in securing arts, education and commerce.

Nance credits his SPB colleague, John Lewis, with spearheading efforts to save the theaters in Playhouse Square Center, where industrial magnates of the 1920s once came to enjoy some of the nation’s finest entertainment in opulent surroundings. “This is the largest group of theaters outside of Broadway and was slated to be destroyed. Thanks to the efforts of John and others, this fabulous architecture has been preserved instead,” Nance said.

With more than 1 million visitors each year and the country’s largest season ticket holder base for its Broadway Series, the center is surrounded by a commercial complex that includes Cleveland State University’s department of theater and dance, along with world-class hotels and eateries.

Landing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland was another great victory for local attorneys and business leaders. Nance credits a list of contributors, including Dick Pogue, David Goodman and Barbara Hawley as among those who had the vision to bring this project to fruition and make it the iconic venue that it is today.”

Cleveland’s second downtown, University Circle, boasts “a collection of some of the best museums and art institutions in the world,” Nance said. “The Cleveland Orchestra is world-renowned, and we have had attorneys involved every step of the way going back in recent history to Alan Holmes.”

Health Care Innovation Another prominent feature of the University Circle community (where attorney Tom Stanton chaired its oversight for many years), is its unmatched health care institutions – Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Nance is a director at the clinic, which has “developed cutting-edge technology for the innovation and delivery of health care. Health care has been part of Cleveland remaking itself. The industry attracts talent, resources and scrutiny unlike any other.” Attorney David Rowan plays a leadership role in guiding the clinic as a regional economic development engine.

As the health care sector emerged to be the largest employer in the county, Nance and a group of his colleagues sought to solve another of Cleveland’s pressing infrastructure and commerce challenges – the renovation of its outdated convention center. “It was large enough, but low-tech and not properly equipped to put on modern shows. We needed a new center, and it needed to be publicly financed.”

Nance, David Goodman, Jeff Applebaum and others believed that building it would not guarantee visitors. So they supported a novel concept – a health care themed convention center. “To make it a reality, we created something called the Medical Mart – based on the mart concept for furniture, jewelry and fashion – a place where people could experience the latest medical devices, products and supplies. If we could put them together in a single building, next to the convention center, we believed it would drive medical meetings and conventions to Cleveland.”

That belief paid off. Today, the Center for Health Innovation is connected to the state-of-the-art Cleveland Convention Center. Cleveland boasts more than 15 million visitors last year, many to trade merchandise, services and ideas.

Another major contributor to Cleveland’s health care renaissance is a venture fund called BioEnterprise, an incubator for biomed startups and products. Nance previously served on its board where he worked with attorney and CEO, Baiju Shah, to raise $1.3 billion in venture capital over 10 years.

Where Public and Private Interests Come Together Nance credits public sector lawyers in Cleveland with “making things happen” by working cooperatively with the private sector and remaining open to innovation. He names Ken Silliman, Sharon Sobol Jordan, Barbara Langhenry, Dave Lambert and Rick Horvath as among those forward-thinking officials “who have made the city a beacon for the public-private partnerships necessary today to make big things happen. I think the city’s can-do attitude is what caused the Republican National Convention to choose us as its host in 2016.” He continues, “Lawyers Cecil Mellin and Jack Dowd pioneered the concept of urban renewal and drafted statutes that allow public funds to be spent for the removal of blight – applying to portions of the city that were damaged due to deterioration or violence.”

As a member of the city council, Tony Garafoli “steered away from the normal bickering to thinking collectively and moving the city forward. He was counsel to the Port Authority, and he helped leverage that agency’s ability to issue tax-free bonds for economic development that had nothing to do with water.” Many of the city’s major projects were funded through Port Authority initiatives. Attorney Dennis Wilcox carries on that tradition. Attorney Tony Coyne has moved the civic ball forward for years from his Planning Commission perch.

“When I began my practice, I could never have imagined that all of these things would happen,” Nance said. “Now, there’s a growing recognition both locally and nationally that Cleveland is a comeback city.… Over the past five years, we’ve invested $19 billion in capital projects that are transforming the face of our downtown and its environs. We’re in the midst of a downtown housing boom that is bringing young people back to the heart of the city.… Unlike many cities, every step of the way forward, Cleveland’s progress has been facilitated, if not led, by lawyers.”

H.K. Wilson

H.K. Wilson is a contributing writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been writing features for the publication for more than four years.

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