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.”

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 < Previous Next >View as One Page
  • J

    Firm laid off a lot more people than your article acknowledge, in August, December, and February – close to 100 total

  • Anonymous

    Agreed – the firm laid off many more people "under the radar" than was made public. Also, this article rarely mentions the bitterness and anger many workers feel toward firm management. Although many lawyers landed on their feet, many other lawyers, and support staff are left jobless. Some, after working at the firm for decades.

  • Chubbz

    this crap has been going on in the profession for almost 15 years now (see, Mudge Rose). Also, no one really gives a rat's ass about a bunch of overpaid obnoxious douchebags — not like any one of them will be missing any meals anytime soon.

  • Jack

    But Wolf Block lives on with Mark Alderman and Steve Goodman working together … on hybrid technology. I don’t want to be melodramatic. I don’t know if this is going to change the world. But it’s a damn good step in the right direction.” – These guys are not going to suffer, they made hundreds of thousands of $ per year. They are getting excited about alt.energy but not excited about their former staff who are losing jobs and homes.

  • Joshua

    maybe he could of worked with the hybrids at WB… I would of had a job, and could of bought one.

  • michael

    TYhat is what happens when gentlemen are replaced by robots counting hour production.