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

Things got so toxic in the office that there was some talk of a mutiny, but it never amounted to much. Historically, Wolf Block had been one of the most democratic firms in the city, with every partner having the same vote and the chairman only serving a one-year term. But Kopp and Segal had convinced the others to vote them co-chairmen for a six-year term, and partners weren’t allowed to vote until they reached Group 3. “We used to joke about it,” says Alan Kaplinsky, a banking law specialist. “The only thing you could vote on at a partnership meeting was whether you had fish or beef.” Few ever stood up to challenge the Troika; those who tried were coldly shot down. (Segal, Kopp and Rosoff didn’t return calls seeking comment, but on May 4th, Segal sent a blistering 41-line e-mail to former Wolf Blockers criticizing the “illegitimate excuses and self serving [sic] reasons put forth by those responsible for the dissolution,” accusing the regime of his own anointed heir, Mark Alderman, of “financial gymnastics.” The fact that Segal neglected to take any responsibility for his own failed leadership was, in the opinion of one recipient of the e-mail, “un-fucking-believable.”)

The Troika’s arrogance infected their decision-making. In 1990, the three decided not to settle a sex discrimination suit filed by an associate named Nancy Ezold, who had been denied promotion to partner after working at the firm for seven years. After a 13-day trial, a judge ordered that Ezold be reinstated, as a partner, and given $131,000 in back pay. The judgment was later overturned on appeal, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for Wolf Block; the trial had exposed the firm to a blaze of ridicule in the press. Another embarrassing dispute erupted in 1994, when one of the firm’s longtime clients, the Korman development company, asked for clarification on a billing matter; the Troika-led Wolf Block whipped around and sued the company. “This was an upstanding client,” says a former Wolf Block partner. “This was not some fly-by-night client stiffing you on a fee … you just don’t do that.”

The ethos that had held the firm together for so many years — its peerless devotion to craft — had been melted away by the Troika. Now the only thing keeping lawyers at Wolf Block was the money. And by the early ’90s, other local firms were making just as much money—and they had the advantage of not being run by the Troika. So people started leaving. The first was Joe Manko, an environmental lawyer, in 1989, followed by Steve Goodman, one of the city’s top corporate lawyers. A trickle became a flood. In 1995, a staggering 17 partners bolted, en masse. “In Judaism, we talk about the Diaspora,” says Burt Rublin, a former Wolf Block litigator who left that year for Ballard Spahr. “The wandering tribes. The Diaspora of the tribes being spread around the world. I always talked about the diaspora from Wolf Block.”