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John Dayton Hamilton, Jr.

John Dayton Hamilton, Jr.
  • June 11, 1934 - March 3, 2020
  • Daniel Island, South Carolina
  • In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Mr. Hamilton's honor to:
  • City Year, Inc.
    287 Columbus Avenue
    Boston, MA 02116

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John D. Hamilton Jr., distinguished real estate lawyer, law firm visionary, mentor and leader, died March 3, 2020, at age 85, at his home in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife Cheryl by his side. Mr. Hamilton rose to prominence first as a real estate lawyer who helped shape the Boston skyline of the 1970s and 80s and then as managing partner of the law firm Hale and Dorr LLP (now WilmerHale), a position he held for more than 15 years.

Ahead of his time on matters ranging from diversity to public service to technology and large firm administration, Mr. Hamilton is best remembered by family, friends, colleagues and the communities he served as modest, selfless and genuinely interested in the well-being of all those who crossed his path. Wherever he saw a need, an inequity or a better way forward, he was tireless in his determination to effect change. He was, above all, a person of great integrity and decency.

As the middle child of three, Mr. Hamilton was born in Canandaigua, New York, to John Sr., a banker, and Faith, a homemaker. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and went on to Princeton University and Harvard Law School, interrupting his education to serve for two years in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps and the United States Navy Reserve, where he was a Navy chaplain.

Upon his law school graduation in 1960, Mr. Hamilton was recruited to Boston's Hale and Dorr to train under Real Estate Department leader Wiley Vaughn, becoming what former colleague Rob Tuchmann describes as "the complete real estate lawyer."

Mr. Hamilton helped reshape the Boston real estate landscape during the city's revival, becoming an expert in the Boston Redevelopment Authority's plans for urban renewal. He provided guidance on complex permitting, financing, leasing, construction and maintenance matters, helping his clients translate their vision for Boston's revitalization into a reality through the development of high-rise Boston office buildings, hotels, factories, apartment complexes and shopping centers. Among many other highlights, he served as counsel to Carpenter & Company in its development of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge and Four Seasons properties across the country.

"John's modest and thoughtful demeanor overlaid a fiercely intelligent and marvelously creative legal thinker," says former colleague Andy Cohn, who notes that fellow lawyers were often astonished by Mr. Hamilton's deft insights and his skill as a draftsman. On numerous occasions, says Cohn, Mr. Hamilton's red pen would reduce whole paragraphs to a few incisive sentences in the space of a moment.

Mr. Hamilton became head of Hale and Dorr's Real Estate Department, growing the group to what was, by the mid-1980s, the fourth-largest real estate practice in the United States. "He had the generosity of spirit and the natural ability as a teacher and mentor to make us into the lawyers that we became," observes Tuchmann.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Hamilton also took on the role of hiring partner, and brought to Hale and Dorr a collection of exceptional young lawyers that would propel the firm to the forefront of an evolving legal industry.

In 1976, Mr. Hamilton interviewed Cornell Law School graduate William F. Lee, spotting the qualities that would make Lee one of the nation's foremost trial, appellate and intellectual property litigators, and later the first Asian-American managing partner of an AmLaw 100 firm. He brought MIT-trained mechanical engineer and Harvard Law School-pedigreed lawyer James B. Lampert to the firm in the mid-1980s to found one of the first intellectual property practices at a general practice law firm. These hires, and many others, helped place Hale and Dorr at the leading edge of the profession as it moved toward the 21st century.

In 1984, the partners of Hale and Dorr asked him to become managing partner, making him Hale and Dorr's fourth leader in its then 66-year history.

As managing partner, Mr. Hamilton was-in the words of Lee, who became his successor in 2000-the firm's "visionary, architect, builder, mentor and leader." He transformed Hale and Dorr's compensation system and governance structure, brought in the firm's first executive director to build an efficient, strong and effective professional staff, and shepherded the firm's first steps into the international arena. By 2000, when Mr. Hamilton stepped down as managing partner, the firm had almost doubled its lawyer headcount and added offices in New York City and Reston, Virginia, as well as joint venture offices in London and Oxford, and even a presence in Prague.

Mr. Hamilton was famous for what former colleague Bill O'Reilly describes as his "management by walking around" style, which made him a constant, and genial, presence in the halls. "John was a people person," says Dan Halston, current partner-in-charge of WilmerHale's Boston office. "He knew everyone, both lawyers and staff, and would always remember the names of their children and grandchildren."

Showing remarkable prescience in recognizing the importance of well-being and work-life balance for those in the legal profession, Mr. Hamilton brought yoga and mindfulness programs to the firm and designated a comfortable corner of the Boston office library for relaxation and reflection, personally stocking the shelves with the history books and biographies he relished. He was also ahead of his time in promoting diversity in law and business, using his position as founding member of the Boston Lawyers Group to encourage the business community to recruit, advance and retain lawyers of color.

Perhaps his greatest professional legacy, however, is the foundation laid by his leadership in pro bono and community service. "My father combined the quality of being a great businessperson with his optimism and altruism," observes Mr. Hamilton's son, John III. "Those qualities don't always go together but, when they do, it is a powerful combination."

Marrying his business acumen with his drive to give back to the community, Mr. Hamilton sought out opportunities to make the greatest impact. After involving the firm as a charter signatory in the Pro Bono Institute's Pro Bono Challenge, he worked with John F. "Jack" Cogan Jr.-his predecessor as managing partner-to establish the Hale and Dorr

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