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

It was early March now. The Club had been meeting for two months. Outside the room, the firm’s other partners were getting antsy, chafing about the slashed bonuses. Ten lawyers in the firm’s Wilmington office had already made it clear they would walk across the hall, literally, to another law firm, Drinker Biddle, housed in the same building. Rumors snowballed. “The more we debated it,” says one member of the Club, “the longer it dragged out, and the more insecure people got, and the more people did what rational people do—they went out into the street and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got x amount of business, and how much will you pay me for it?’” The outlines of a nightmare scenario emerged. What if the new bank lent millions to Wolf Block, and Wolf Block used the money to pay out bonuses, and the partners turned around and bolted anyway? Wolf Block would be plunged into chaos and eternal debt, unable to serve its clients or protect any of its remaining employees. As Alderman puts it, “If you aren’t sure that people you need are gonna be here to repay that money you’re borrowing, don’t do it.”

But it wasn’t just the partners “out there,” outside the room, that the Breakfast Clubbers were leery of. The crisis of confidence had now breached the inner walls of the Club. All along, the tone of its discussions had been chipper and warm. The Clubbers would go around the table, one by one, and proclaim their sentiments: Yeah, I’ve been at this place for 20 years, I’m never leaving, I love you guys. They called it “kum-bah-yahing.” And the feelings were genuine. However, “It was clear that a number of people were having discussions with, possibly, a number of firms,” says one Clubber. It was hard to know which people were talking to whom—only that some people definitely were. The center wasn’t going to hold unless there was strong leadership from the very top.

Alderman, though, was increasingly disengaged. He had already ceded some duties to David Gitlin, who was expected to become Wolf Block’s new managing partner. More than one Clubber suspected that Alderman, whose contract with Wolf Block guaranteed him a million dollars a year, was already talking to Cozen O’Connor about his next job — an accusation that Alderman has strongly denied. In a meeting during the week of March 16th, Hersh Kozlov challenged Alderman to commit to staying at Wolf Block no matter what. Alderman was in his car at the time, calling in on speakerphone. He replied, “Don’t bully me.” (Alderman remembers saying, “Don’t bully the room.”) Kozlov’s challenge was “an aberration,” another source inside that meeting told me, and also an unfair one, given that it singled out Alderman when others were surely wavering, too. But the point is that the lack of certainty among the people in that room about the people in that room was real, and it created a powerful incentive to dissolve Wolf Block. “Joe Smith says, ‘I don’t want to be sitting here and finding out everybody’s left, and I’m stuck holding the bag,’” says Alan Kessler, a member of the firm’s executive committee. “I gotta say, it was either we do this together, we keep the firm, or we do this together, we pull the plug.”