My road to legal fame and fortune began when I was fifteen years old (although some may say it began in the womb, as I emerged stubborn and argumentative). My mom worked at a now defunct personal injury law firm as a legal secretary. In my mom’s day, being a legal secretary meant, “I could be the lawyer, but I don’t have the piece of paper.” She opened the files, generated the complaints, wrote the settlement letters, filed the pleadings, everything — and all in some cockamamy thing called shorthand.
From the minute I walked in the door as a summer file girl, she kept pushing me – ask to work the switchboard, they need a fill in — learn that. Ask to type dictation – you can type, never mind you don’t know how to use the dictaphone, you’ll figure it out later. Tell them you can comp the medical bills, I don’t care if you’re scared – just do it! There was always another skill to pick up, another thing to make myself useful – and valuable. And, if I ever was going to become a lawyer, because to her, I certainly wasn’t going to be the secretary, I would be ready, ready from the ground up.
And, if I was going to be a lawyer – there was no way I was going to be a shyster PI lawyer – oh, no – she said, you’ll work some place – some place like Wolf Block.
Wolf Block was it – if you were a Jewish lawyer, working at Wolf Block meant you had arrived, you had made it, you were really the real deal. You could now call yourself a “Philadelphia lawyer.” All of the lawyers who worked at our small personal injury firm said, “Wendy, you don’t want to be a lawyer. Don’t become a lawyer. But if you have to be a lawyer, be a lawyer at Wolf Block.” These PI lawyers were overworked, they made no money, they sued over slip and falls, car accidents, botched minor medical procedures. They walked with their heads tilted to the side, as if too heavy to hold up. And, to these weary, miserable guys who hated their jobs, and hated being a lawyer, Wolf Block was like a mirage, a geyser in the desert.
And, as I grew up, their hopes grew – she got into Penn State main campus – next stop Wolf Block. Temple Law? Moot court? Law Review? Wolf Block here she comes.
And, when I became a public defender? Eh, they said, she’ll do that for a couple of years – and then Wolf Block.
Well, the road that took me to the public defenders office took me through a few large law firms, as a secretary, and from the behind the scenes, after hours view I had (I worked my way through law school as secretary on the night staff of a big firm), it wasn’t for me. But, it’s still with sadness that I wish a fond farewell to Wolf Block Schorr and Solis Cohen, which voted yesterday to close their doors.
Wolf Block was founded in 1903 as Stern & Wolf. In 1935, it’s founding partner, Horace Stern, became the first Jew elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and eventually became its Chief Justice. Up until the mid 60’s, it was the only elite Philadelphia firm where a Jewish lawyer could get a job. In 1962, half of the largest firms in Philadelphia had no Jewish attorneys, and the rest had a token one or two. It really wasn’t until after 1964, when the Union League finally voted to accept Jewish members that doors finally started to open for Jews in the larger law firms.
To me, it’s hard to imagine a time when doors were closed to Jewish lawyers, but they were. The legal community, you would think, would be the last place you would find anti-Semitism, but it was a truth nonetheless. And while Wolf Block wasn’t always a harbor for liberal thinking — participating in the McCarthy witch hunt for Communists in the 1950’s and defending Jefferson University’s firing of several, alleged Communist doctors — it was still always a front runner for at least religious diversity.
Wolf Block’s disintegration is no surprise – it’s been coming for a few years, as one failed merger attempt after another was reported in the Legal Intelligencer. But, there’s still a difference between recognizing an economic reality, and accepting that an icon for Jewish success is no longer going to be part of the fabric of Philadelphia’s legal community. And, while being a lawyer a Wolf Block is hardly a measure of “success” to me, I still know how proud my mother would have been (of course, she’s proud of me here), and the other guys at the PI firm, would have been, had a hung up my shingle behind the hallowed doors at Wolf Block, and what they stood for.
So, goodbye to Wolf Block, and good luck to the 300 or so attorneys who now find themselves jobless, as well as the equal number of staff members who now have to find a job in this dreadful economy. Paths take you to strange places sometimes, and who would have ever thought Wolf Block’s path would come to a deadend..