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

EVENTUALLY, EVEN THE Troika realized that they had gone too far. In 1995, they reached out for help, to a former disciple of Howard Gittis and then Charlie Kopp: a whip-smart, charismatic young lawyer who had joined Wolf Block as a summer associate in 1977, then rocketed through the Group system faster than anybody had ever seen before leaving to join another Philly firm. During his years in exile from Wolf Block, Mark Alderman had prospered, becoming a key fund-raiser for Democratic politicians. And now, at a mere 42 years old, he was returning to the fold, with a mission to reverse the Wolf Block diaspora and make the firm great again.

It was a tall order. Wolf Block consisted of about 150 lawyers in an old, decrepit building, one lawyer in a rented office in Malvern, and a heap of trouble. But Alderman had a secret weapon: his temperament. Where Black Bob and The Creature had ruled by fear, Alderman ruled by gentleness. He jogged. He had teeth so white they looked almost blue. He had hair like a disco-era prom king, wavy and organically luxuriant. He had never, as far as anyone could tell, yelled at anyone in his entire life. Alderman and his leadership team organized the first firm-wide retreat in more than a decade. They blew open the doors and asked for criticism. And as a result, they were able to build momentum behind a new strategy of what Alderman later described to me as “growth. Substantial growth … more depth, more breadth, more bandwidth, as the cliché goes.” In 1996, they added a family-law practice based in Norristown. In 1998, they bought out a 35-attorney firm with a Park Avenue address in New York. In 1999, Alderman cleared Wolf Block out of the Packard Building, with its peeling wallpaper and cockroaches, and relocated to a modern, customized suite at 1650 Arch Street. More acquisitions followed: offices in Boston, Harrisburg, Washington, D.C., and Roseland, New Jersey. And for the first time in many years, the Wolf Block mother ship in Philly was a collegial place to work; in a national survey of mid-level associates in 2001, the year that Alderman became co-chairman of the firm, Wolf Block tied with Drinker Biddle as the firm in Philly with the best “general culture and climate.”

But as healthy as the new Wolf Block appeared on the surface, cracks and fissures were forming underneath. For years, Alderman and Matthew Kamens, an estate lawyer, had split management duties; Alderman was the “outside man,” keeping clients happy and selling the Wolf Block brand to new recruits, and Kamens was the “inside man,” a meat-and-potatoes manager of the books. But in 2001, Kamens transitioned out of leadership, becoming Sidney Kimmel’s personal lawyer. And in Kamens’s absence, Alderman’s weakness with detail became increasingly problematic. While other firms in Philly were busy restructuring into sleek and flexible entrepreneurial machines where partners were paid based on elaborate projections of billable hours — particularly Cozen O’Connor, run by Steven Cozen, who began his career as a lowly insurance lawyer, but was increasingly eating Wolf Block’s lunch — Alderman seemed to be focused more on image. The New York office was faltering, but Alderman refused to close it. “He was essentially building up his own nest,” says Jerry Shestack, a famous litigator and former president of the American Bar Association who joined Wolf Block in 1991 from the Schnader Harrison firm. Shestack, echoing the off-the-record comments of several other Wolf Blockers, told me he didn’t see the Alderman regime as inclusive at all; decisions were made by “one or two or three people,” and “Everyone went along like rubber stamps.” (“It is true that Jerry was not as involved in the leadership of the firm as he might have liked to be,” Alderman told me, calling Shestack a “very respected lawyer for a very good reason.” He added, “But I don’t think Jerry’s view was accurate. … I’m surprised Jerry told you that.”) The firm continued to push into governmental relations—Alderman’s specialty, but not a traditional revenue-generator. “It was almost like a fetish,” says one former Wolf Block partner who didn’t want to be identified. Alderman, a major fund-raiser for Barack Obama, defends the push into politics and government work as “a very promising and profitable business,” and a “differentiator” for the firm.