In the case that established the right of a free press in America, observers noted that it took a Philadelphia lawyer to acquit John Peter Zenger, the New York printer sued for criminal libel in 1735. The term was first recorded in a London publication in 1788, which alluded to a proverbial saying: "It would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer." Folklore has it that there was a New England adage that went, "Any three Philadelphia lawyers are a match for the devil." The term, it seems, is not without its dark side.
For eight years (1992-2000), Philadelphia's "first" Philadelphia lawyer was the Honorable Ed Rendell, C'65, Hon'00. He also prosecuted criminals for two terms as a Philadelphia district attorney. Currently, he is in private practice with the Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll.
In April, Rendell received the 2001 School of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award. Who better, we thought, to offer some perspective on this legendary figure? On Monday evenings during the spring semester, the former mayor taught two urban studies courses in SAS: Can Cities Survive? and Who Gets Elected and Why. In the hour between classes, we buttonholed the likely Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate and current Philadelphia lawyer, intruding with a few questions on the torrent of calls that came across his cell phone.
Q. How would you define the Philadelphia lawyer?
Q. While you were chair of the Democratic National Committee, three
Philadelphia lawyers went to Florida to contest the presidential election.
If I were to say one negative thing, I'd have to say that over the course of time a lot of the courtesy in legal practice has been lost. For a number of attorneys, the combativeness and the competitiveness has taken over. You can be skillful and tough as nails, and still have respect for your opponent. I'd really like to see the re-establishment of civility in the practice of law.
I'll tell you a cute story. My son, Jesse, C'02, when he was about 12
or 13, went down to the shore with my wife, Midge, CW'69. I had my typical
mayoral duties, where I had about six places to go on a Saturday night.
When I knew I wouldn't be down, I'd call them about 11 o'clock. I said
to Jesse, "What did you do tonight?"
I know it's fashionable to dump on lawyers, and there are some in Philadelphia
who have violated their trust and their responsibility to the court. But,
by and large, I think we have a terrific bar. If there's a common strain
among our lawyers, I'd say it's a willingness, more so than in other cities,
to do pro bono work and to give back. If any of my political opponents
want to call me a Philadelphia lawyer, I'd take it as a compliment.