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"S BEEN SAID that the two men who co-founded Wolf Block in 1903 were notorious underchargers of clients because they were worried about the stereotype of the “covetous Jew.” Horace Stern was a short, self-effacing, turtle-looking law professor, a shy, happy sort of legal monk you’d often find in the firm’s library, plucking dusty volumes from the shelves and scribbling away at briefs. The other co-founder, Morris Wolf, was a tall aristocrat who played tennis at the Philmont Country Club and read Cicero for fun. (The firm’s original name was Stern & Wolf; lawyer Gordon Block came along later, in 1918.) Wolf was embarrassed by money because he had grown up with so damned much of it. All the way into the 1960s, Wolf refused to let his lawyers carry business cards because he thought they were vulgar. The point of having a law firm, for Wolf and Stern, was not to make money, but to luxuriate in the practice of law. They built what prominent Wolf Block litigator and former city solicitor Alan Davis would later call “an artificially erected intellectual ghetto,” a craftsman’s paradise where lawyers—sheltered by the majestic Packard Building, with its iron-gated elevators and sprawling library stacks — would argue for hours about a single sentence in a brief. “We would turn out product that was worthy of General Motors for Sam’s Gas Station,” Davis said, “because that’s who we represented.” Wolf Block wasn’t just a law firm. It was the Promised Land.

But it couldn’t last. With the 1960s came an erosion of the notion of the law as a trade, akin to journalism or cooking. Across the country, the practice of law was growing corporatized. It was inevitable that the Wolf Block ghetto would be breached.

The first man to shake its walls was a pudgy, cigar-smoking schmoozer named Howard Gittis. A warm, impish presence in the Packard Building — Gittis used to buy shoe shines for the young lawyers — he was the firm’s top business generator, or “rainmaker.” Wolf Blockers remember Gittis as a man of impulsive confidence whose clients swore by his exquisite judgment. Says Mark Aronchick, who used to work for Gittis and later became city solicitor, “There was nobody who wasn’t the greatest person he ever met.” The people instincts of Howard Gittis made him the most sought-after adviser in Philadelphia. He advised Frank Rizzo, the sworn enemy of Bill Green. Then he advised Bill Green. “Everybody thought that he was a fixer,” says Steve Arbittier, former chairman of Wolf Block’s litigation department. “That he could fix anything. He couldn’t. But he was just so out there, and so high-profile, that whenever something good happened, the client automatically assumed that Howard had put in a good word for them.” During the Gittis years, Wolf Block owned the city because Gittis owned the city; the firm had more lawyers than anyone else, it was winning the bulk of the lucrative contracts to do city bond work, and one of its former attorneys, Bill Green, was the mayor.

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