Setting the Record Straight on the Meaning of ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’

February 19, 2021Articles The Legal Intelligencer

In recent days, the concept of what it means to be a Philadelphia lawyer has received national attention. This proud term has been used in a manner that does not describe the profession I know. As chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, which represents and supports the interests of its 11,000 members, I want to set the record straight on what it means to be part of this city’s outstanding community of lawyers.

Historically, the term Philadelphia lawyer represented excellence, high professional standards and respect for the judiciary, witnesses and opposing counsel. It calls to mind the unwavering commitment of thousands of lawyers in our city who serve their clients’ needs every day with thoroughness and tremendous pride and conviction, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Indeed, Philadelphia lawyers have long been a point of pride for the city. In the 1700s, many considered Philadelphia lawyers the most highly skilled in the American colonies. Lawyers here served in long apprenticeships and traveled to London to receive training in Inns of Court, which provided the era’s best legal instruction available. The term was closely associated with a 1735 case in which a Philadelphia lawyer, working pro bono, successfully defended a newspaper publisher against a libel charge brought by the royal governor. For decades, people used the phrase “this would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer” to describe problems that were particularly difficult to solve.

Those principles and ideals that define Philadelphia lawyers have not changed. In fact, they are even truer of our profession today. Over the last year, our city has faced the most serious health care crisis in a generation, suffered unimaginable loss of life, grieved countless loved ones and struggled to address stark racial disparities. Philadelphia lawyers have risen to meet these challenges, working with the courts, our clients and our communities, to develop a path forward, despite the pandemic. The Philadelphia legal community also knows that now, more than ever, we must help tear down the barriers to equality in America and are dedicated to doing so.

At its core, the Philadelphia Bar Association is a community of lawyers devoted to service to the profession. Founded in 1802, we are the nation’s oldest metropolitan bar association. Our community is diverse, multifaceted, and woven into the fabric of the city. In the face of the economic strain brought on by the pandemic, we have advocated for the right to counsel for low-income tenants at the state level, and continued to support the implementation of the right to counsel in Philadelphia. We have supported the city’s eviction diversion program, ensuring that tenants are able to stay in their homes during these uncertain times. Our public interest community and private attorneys taking on pro bono cases spend hundreds of thousands of hours each year providing free or low-cost legal services. We have also provided crucial guidance to the courts about adapting legal processes so that justice can continue to be served safely during the pandemic.

This year, our association’s Judicial Commission will evaluate more than 20 judicial candidates and provide our recommendations to the Philadelphia voters so that they can make informed decisions casting their ballots. We will offer programs to encourage voting and voter registration and continue our efforts to protect the independence of Pennsylvania’s judiciary. I am also proud of the firm statements we’ve made over the past year defending the rule of law and the fundamental principles of our democracy.

This is who Philadelphia lawyers are—a proud group of professionals who will always stand up for the principles that our profession has embraced for over 200 years and who will do so with the same strong conviction and commitment demonstrated by prior generations. Our work will never be defined by a single circumstance or criticism meant to paint the Philadelphia legal community with a broad brush. And our community can rest assured that the Philadelphia Bar Association and the lawyers who drive the organization, will always uphold the ideals and principles of what it truly means to be a “Philadelphia Lawyer.”

Reprinted with permission from the February 19 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.