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

On Monday, March 23, 2009, just after midnight, a young lawyer named Zachary Glaser was working late when he received a text message from a friend:

sorry to hear about your firm

He texted back:

i’m at my firm. what the hell do you mean?

The friend replied:

uh. check philly.com.

Glaser, then 34, was in his office on the 25th floor of an Arch Street high-rise, thumbing through six thick binders to prepare for an upcoming closing argument. He was also entering his time sheets into Wolf Block’s computer system.

Despite the recession, Glaser’s department, litigation, had been holding steady, and he sensed no great peril on the horizon. After all, Wolf Block was 106 years old: one of the first Jewish law firms in Philadelphia, an iconic city institution. Glaser, who grew up in a Jewish family in West Philly, knew its legend as well as anyone. Wolf Block was the firm that hired Jews in the days when no other firm would hire Jews. It had transformed anti-Semitism into a competitive advantage, cornering the market on bright Jewish lawyers and pairing them with the Jewish real estate developers who, even as the WASPs over at the Union League barred the doors to them, built Philadelphia under their very noses. It was a brilliant business strategy. It was why Wolf Block had endured the Great Depression, two World Wars, and Frank Rizzo. The firm would surely endure the Great Recession of 2009, too.

Glaser had joined the firm in 1999, on the cusp of a frantic growth spurt, keyed to the inflation of the real-estate bubble, that saw Wolf Block add 100 new lawyers in a mere five years. “Everybody was making money,” he says. “Everybody was happy.” The recession had dampened morale, yes. It had slashed Wolf Block’s profits and caused trouble with its bank. But Glaser was also aware that 15 of Wolf Block’s smartest lawyers had been meeting every week for the past two months to find ways to cut costs and put the firm on surer footing. As the turnaround plan had been explained to Glaser, an “associate” or junior lawyer, “It was gonna suck, and this year was gonna stink … but the plan was gonna make it. Even if we were flat broke, we were gonna be fine. Even if we had a minor loss, we were gonna be okay. The plan was good.”

But then he got that text message. uh. check philly.com. What he saw was a Web story headlined, “Sources: Wolf Block partners to discuss dissolving firm.”

And that’s how Zachary Glaser learned that maybe Wolf Block wasn’t so durable after all, and he probably should start looking for another job.