What's A 'Philadelphia Lawyer'?

Posted: January 16, 1987

The definition of the term Philadelphia lawyer is not quite as clear-cut as it might be. In part, it dates back to 1735 when a lawyer from the big city of Philadelphia announced that he would defend a small-town newspaper publisher against a stacked court. The town was New York, the lawyer Andrew Hamilton, the publisher John Peter Zenger - and the acquittal of Zenger helped create the principle of free expression in America.

Somewhere along the line, though, the image of the Philadelphia lawyer acquired a mixture of something else. The term, for some, evokes the image of the railroad company lawyer who talks the Widow Jones into surrendering the deed to her farm for a fraction of its appreciated market value.

A test is at hand for the legal community of Philadelphia that may help to clarify just what the term Philadelphia lawyer means today. The challenge comes in proposals put forward by a committee headed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr., and including nearly every key player in the city's legal community. Aimed at alleviating the current crisis in the city's courts, the proposals would extend the court day, forbid continuances on the day a trial is scheduled and ask lawyers to help in several ways. The extent, and kind of cooperation offered will be crucial.

Take, for example, the proposal that the top local law firms together provide the Public Defender's Office with six lawyers a month. That won't work if the firms send newly minted attorneys for a perfunctory baptism by fire. What's needed is for lawyers who have been assistant district attorneys, who have been public defenders, and who are now the principal litigators in private law firms, to answer the call that has now gone forth to help the city's judicial system in an hour of maximum danger, when scandal and unfilled vacancies are fueling an enormous backlog of untried cases.

It remains to be seen whether this will happen. Seymour Kurland, the new chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, is worried that a perception of crisis is not yet abroad in the city. He compares the situation to England at the opening of World War II when the British people didn't realize they were at war "until there were Nazi bombers over London." He says he needs chief public defender Benjamin J. Lerner and District Attorney Ronald D. Castille to come before his organization and say urgently: "We need your help."

That same spirit will be needed to make almost every aspect of the program work. Philadelphia lawyers are not being asked for blood, or even for tears, in this civic cause. Just some toil and sweat. It is to be hoped that this will be their finest hour.

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