After graduating from Miami University of Ohio in 1845, Algernon Sydney Sullivan immediately began the process of studying to become a lawyer under the tutelage of his father, Jeremiah. He took a break along the way to help win a campaign to bring public education to his home state of Indiana, but eventually finished his studies and entered the family trade.
Sullivan’s legal career was not always a smooth one—after setting up shop in Cincinnati, he famously ended up penniless and disgraced. Always eager to help his friends, he had cosigned on numerous bank transactions, and, when the economy suffered a crash in 1856, he was saddled with enormous debt.
Sullivan left Cincinnati for New York, embarrassed by his failure and determined to pay off what he owed his creditors. It was there that he ultimately redeemed himself and learned to bring his dedication to helping others into harmony with his professional ambition.
Sullivan chaired a committee to relocate the remains of former president James Monroe to his home state of Virginia. Despite holding a staunch anti-slavery stance, Sullivan advocated for the humane treatment of captured Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Mary Mildred Sullivan served as a fundraiser and eventually joined the board of the Nursery and Child’s Hospital of New York. During this time, the Sullivans also welcomed and raised their son, George.
And, for Sullivan, true professional success came when, in 1878, he founded the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, a partnership with 25-year-old William Nelson Cromwell, in whom Sullivan had seen early promise and arranged for his enrollment in Columbia Law School.
The new enterprise did well, and played a hand in some of America’s most significant developments such as the formation of the Edison General Electric Company in 1882. Sullivan and Cromwell, in fact, still flourishes today, and has grown into a top global firm with offices in Europe, Asia, and Australia. In 2015, its lawyers contributed more than 64,000 hours of pro bono work to individuals, charities, and other organizations.
Sullivan, of course, was gone too soon to see much of the success he’d finally earned—he died in 1887. Still, his dual legacy—embodied in the foundation and firm that each bear his name—demonstrates that the drive to excel individually and the compassion to serve humanity need not be mutually exclusive.