Wrongful Death

Over the course of a century, Wolf Block grew into one of Philadelphia’s most famous law firms, a power base for the city’s Jewish elite. So what caused its shocking sudden collapse in March? The behind-the-scenes story of a Philly icon’s demise

People who study human decision-making call this a “prisoner’s dilemma.” In a prisoner’s dilemma, cooperation is the choice that gets you the best outcome, but only if everyone cooperates. You don’t want to be the only one who decides to cooperate if everyone else is bolting, because then you’re screwed. Ultimately, in those final days, what Wolf Block needed to survive wasn’t a line of credit, or a merger. What it needed was some kind of larger glue to counteract the shearing logic of the prisoner’s dilemma. It needed, for lack of a better word, faith.

At the last executive committee meeting, on Friday, March 20th, people were crying. At the end, the vote to wind down the firm was virtually unanimous.

BY THE MIDDLE of April, about 170 of the 300 Wolf Block attorneys had found new homes. (Zachary Glaser, who had gotten the “sorry to hear about your firm” text message, landed at Duane Morris, with its lobby vast enough to play touch football games in.) The situation was rougher for the retired partners (whose pensions had been permanently zapped), for the secretaries who had been made redundant, and for junior associates cast into the worst job-seeking economy since the Great Depression.

Mark Alderman spent a few weeks making calls to help his former colleagues find jobs. Then, as had been widely predicted, he touched down at Cozen. I meet him there in late April, in his new corner office. “Sit anywhere you want,” he says warmly. “Sit behind the desk if you want.”

He takes a seat next to an end table featuring a photo of him shaking hands with Obama. He’s been here for 10 days now, enough time to situate the large, leafy tree, a gift from Howard Gittis, that dominates one corner of the office, near a photo of Winston Churchill.  

He speaks in a lilting, philosophical tone of voice. He says he feels “Janus-like,” looking to the future with excitement and the past with sadness. He quotes William Faulkner and Thomas Jefferson. He moves to a leather couch and extends his right arm along the couch’s back, curling his hand into a “C” shape. His sleeves are rolled up just shy of the elbows, and he takes sips from a plastic bottle of Pepsi. Does he think there was anything he could have done differently? “In retrospect, if somebody told us that the economy was going to disappear into a black hole in the fourth quarter of 2008, of course there are things we should have done to prepare for that. I wasn’t smart enough to see the recession coming. I admit that. I think I have good company on that.” Was he too passive, too reluctant to make the hard decisions? Alderman tilts his head and smiles. “Wolf Block did not fail because of its last chairman’s personality,” he says, his voice growing subtly deeper and calmer. “There’s a lot more goin’ on than that.”