Law Review: Taking experience, passion to Harrisburg

Stephen Aichele, chairman of Saul Ewing L.L.P., a top Center City law firm, has long had a keen appetite for government and politics. He is about to take a top role in Gov.-elect Corbett's administration, heading an executive branch and agency legal team of close to 500 lawyers.
Stephen Aichele, chairman of Saul Ewing L.L.P., a top Center City law firm, has long had a keen appetite for government and politics. He is about to take a top role in Gov.-elect Corbett's administration, heading an executive branch and agency legal team of close to 500 lawyers.
Posted: January 17, 2011

Stephen Aichele is one of the region's best-known real estate lawyers, in addition to being chairman of Saul Ewing L.L.P., the prominent Center City law firm.

He's a legal dervish who over the years has had his hand in projects as diverse as the Convention Center expansion and suburban mall developments.

So it's tempting to suggest that it was the real estate industry's now-going-on-five-year swoon that one day inspired Aichele to accept Gov.-elect Tom Corbett's offer to head his legal team in Harrisburg.

After all, why not bail if commercial real estate lawyers from California to Conshohocken have little more to do than scan the latest Excel matrix of possible client leads?

But that would not be giving Aichele's long involvement in government and politics its proper due, nor Saul Ewing's real estate practice, which has kept up a brisk pace of restructurings and other business as lawyers wait for deal-making to revive.

In fact, Aichele, 62, of Tredyffrin Township in Chester County, has long had a keen appetite for government and politics.

His father was a political science professor at Temple University and talk at the dinner table centered on the major political movements and issues of the day. He majored in government at Cornell University before getting his law degree from Temple.

Aichele got his start in politics at its most basic level, joining a community fight in Tredyffrin against a neighborhood school closing. They lost that battle, but formed a movement that managed to replace the elected officials involved in the closing.

Aichele himself became a township supervisor and began a long friendship with the late J. Clayton Undercofler 3d, the former SEPTA chairman and prominent white-collar defense lawyer who for years was one of the city's most influential figures. Undercofler also was a Saul Ewing partner.

"You saw what you could create if you had the community pulling in one direction," Aichele said of his earlier political activism.

The picture that emerges of Aichele, a former Navy officer whose family has deep Pennsylvania-German roots, is that of classic inside player and confidant of top Republican decision-makers.

Since 1991, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group based in Washington, Aichele has contributed more than $48,000 to candidates for federal office; lawyers at Saul Ewing in total kicked in $515,000.

In all likelihood, Aichele will take a substantial pay cut for the privilege of commuting to Harrisburg.

Translation: Money is not an issue.

Not only will Aichele serve in a cabinet-level position, but so, too, will his wife, Carol, a Chester County commissioner who has forged a prominent career in her own right and has been nominated secretary of the commonwealth.

And there's more. On Thursday, Corbett announced that he had chosen Aichele's partner at Saul Ewing, Michael Consedine, vice chairman of the firm's insurance practice group, to serve as state insurance commissioner.

Largely as a consequence of political scandals in Washington, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia, along with the Wall Street bank bailouts, the outsized role in government decision-making of business executives and legal insiders has drawn intense public scrutiny and skepticism.

But having a senior business person head a major division of government can have powerful public benefits, provided it is the right person.

So far, Aichele has been saying the right things.

In a state where legal patronage has long been part of the political landscape, Aichele says there will be no favored firms when it comes to selecting outside counsel.

Everyone will compete on the merits, he insists.

"I would not have been comfortable taking the job if I thought there would be one firm favored over another," he said during a phone interview as he drove back from meetings in Harrisburg to his Center City office.

Aichele will head an executive branch and agency legal team of close to 500 lawyers, and he is still trying to get a handle on that assignment.

He also will be an adviser to the governor, whom he has known for years. Aichele worked with Corbett when, for a time, Corbett joined the in-house legal team of the company Waste Management Inc. and Aichele was representing the firm as outside counsel.

Aichele is a deal-maker largely, and he expresses distaste for the cutthroat world of litigation, where a take-no-prisoners approach is favored. He hopes to bring to state government the consensus-building techniques needed to close real estate deals.

"If you can't find common ground, then you are left with winners and losers and often you end up with a stalemate," he said.

It all sounds like politics on a national scale.

"As a young real estate lawyer, I was working with a seasoned client once, and we were in a negotiation, and I was [trying to gain every advantage]," he said, "and during a break the client pulled me aside. He said 'Steve, I understand what you are trying to do. But if we negotiate too good a deal the other side will renegotiate it when we are not looking.'

"I have never forgotten that," he said.

For government, Aichele's ideas may be long overdue, but it seems likely they will be sorely tested in the coming months.

Given the exceptionally tight budget in Harrisburg, it is not clear that government leaders have room to negotiate much of anything.


Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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