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For York lawyer, street corner is a canvas

The building has been a drug store and a print shop. Drive by it on your way into downtown York today, and you might think it’s been refashioned as an art gallery. Or maybe a coffee shop, what with the tables and chairs on the sidewalk out front.

Joel Berg

It’s only when you look up and see the yellow and black sign that you realize what it is: the office of Rich Reilly, Attorney at Law.

Over the last four years, Reilly has hung more than a shingle at the southwest corner of Duke and Philadelphia streets. He and his staff have crashed a downtown scene better known for bars, restaurants and hipster boutiques than law firms that specialize in wills and estates.

Improbably, Reilly’s legal office at 54 N. Duke St. has become a must-visit destination on York’s First Fridays, a monthly block party that aims to draw people downtown.

Reilly, 54, bought the building for about $125,000 in August 2012. Before that, he had spent two decades renting space in a building that now houses 56 Urban Provisions, a shop in the revitalized Royal Square neighborhood.

After a bit of renovation, much of which he did himself, he moved his office in November 2012.

The transition from renter to owner has uncorked Reilly’s creative spirit.

 “I’m the same attorney now I’ve always been,” he said. “But now I’m in a loud location, a prominent, in-your-face, high-traffic area, so I search myself for that element of me that can fill this space.”

A work in progress

Joel Berg

On a recent tour, Reilly showed me the work he’s already done – from exposing interior brick arches to installing a sandbox on the sidewalk out front – and the work he is still planning. It includes creating a second-floor space for community use.

“There’s never been a moment where there hasn’t been something going on here,” Reilly said. “It’s coming to life. The building is finding what its next purpose is.”

You could say the same for Reilly.

At his old office, his creativity was limited to planting colorful flowers in the windows. The flowers followed him to Duke and Philadelphia, but so have colorful couches, café-style seating and a full-body embrace of First Friday.

Since 2012, Reilly and his staff have hosted musicians, baked cookies and collected clothing for the nonprofit Dress for Success. Regular visitors include children from the Salvation Army of York, located around the corner on East King Street.

In 2015, the firm was recognized with a Downtown First award from York-based Downtown Inc, which organizes First Fridays.

“They kind of broke down the barrier for some businesses that may not have understood where they can fit into an event like First Friday,” said Meagan Feeser, marketing director for Downtown Inc. “And they’ve been doing it for years, so it’s really great.”

It’s not about marketing the law firm, although the events do help spread the word.

“It was more about making people unafraid about downtown York, having a warm, welcoming comfortable spot where people could visit and come back and have a different experience,” Reilly said.

After all that, you might be surprised to learn that Reilly considers himself a shy person. It’s a description that has more to do with his aversion to public speaking. He sees his role as being more of a host, someone who is at his best making other people feel comfortable.

“My chief duty on First Friday is to get people to walk in the door,” said Reilly.

Reilly, who grew up in Lebanon but has lived in York County for more than 25 years, also has a mission. He and his wife, Missy, hope to make a difference in the city. It is becoming more vibrant but remains haunted by fear of crime.

The latest incident was a shooting in the parking lot outside a high school football game. Two men were injured, one critically, according to news reports.

Reilly declines to focus on the city’s negatives. He said he has never felt unsafe in his 25 years working downtown and is optimistic about its future.

“There’s such amazing things going on,” he said. “I don’t feel the synergy slowing down. I feel it still growing and more money being invested.”

A safe place

Reilly decided to become a lawyer after a college internship in the office of former state Sen. David “Chip” Brightbill.

“Chip just really sold it from the point that it really opened up a lot of doors and gave you a lot of options,” said Reilly, who initially considered a career in politics. That path was taken instead by his brother, Robert, who is chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican who represents York County, as well as portions of Adams, Cumberland and Dauphin counties.

Reilly paid his way through what was then the Dickinson School of Law by working as a welder in Lebanon. After graduating in 1990, Reilly bought a house in Spring Garden Township, where he still lives with his wife and two young children.

He spent a year at an established law firm before he and the firm realized they weren’t a good match. “I didn’t fit their style. They didn’t fit mine,” said Reilly, who is not a suit-and-tie kind of lawyer.

He wasn’t happy about being fired, but it pushed him into solo practice and he hasn’t looked back. As an attorney handling wills and estates, he taps his strengths as a host to soothe families during emotionally fraught times.

“Really my job is to make them comfortable and relaxed,” he said. “But you don’t want to put me in front of a group of people to make a speech.”

Reilly could have moved his firm into the suburbs in 2012. For one thing, the taxes would have been a lot lower. But, he said, “We made a conscious decision four years ago. Let’s bite the bullet. Let’s try to make a difference.”

In talking about his motives, he circles back to his childhood in Lebanon. His parents were both steelworkers, working on different shifts. They would communicate at times by leaving notes for each other, but mom and dad were always there for their children.

Reilly realizes his life could have turned out very differently if he had not had support from his family and community, as well as a place to hang out in his city neighborhood

For Reilly, it was the YMCA, where he could swim, watch TV, shoot pool, jump on a trampoline and play ping pong.

He wants to create a similar space for his young neighbors, along the lines of a proposal by York city councilman Michael Helfrich. In a recent newspaper column, Helfrich wrote that city residents and nonprofits can help end violence by opening up centers where children can play and learn, but also feel respected and loved.

Why can’t a law firm be one of those places?

“I had a safe place I could go,” Reilly said. “I don’t feel that now. I feel a lot of energy pushing people away. And that’s why I open the doors.”

Joel Berg
Joel Berg is editor of the Central Penn Business Journal. Born in Philadelphia, raised in Northern Virginia and now living in York, he's a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Maryland. Have a question or story idea? Email him at [email protected].

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