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Leaving Its Legacy
Before its announcement this week that it would disband, the law firm of Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen LLP was known for producing mayors, judges, academics, chancellors of local and national bar associations, and more. But to hear members of the city's Jewish community tell it, what WolfBlock beget more than anything was leaders in Philadelphia's Jewish community.
"Because WolfBlock has been such a strong supporter of our community, and its partners made major contributions to our community, we regret the circumstances," said Bennett Aaron of the law firm Pepper Hamilton and a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
He likened the historically Jewish firm to Einstein Medical Center and other hospitals established by Jewish doctors, noting that Jewish law firms served the dual purpose of letting attorneys "grow their practices and serve their client base."
Founded in 1903 by Morris Wolf and his law professor Horace Stern, the firm was a haven for Jews during an era when they were unable to get jobs elsewhere. In his book, Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940-2000, Murray Friedman, longtime head of the local office of the American Jewish Committee who died in 2005, wrote that barriers lasted until the 1960s.
Robert Wachs, 84, who headed the practice's hiring program for 20 years, said that the barriers for Jews elsewhere gave WolfBlock "the pick of the best students from the best law schools."
Wachs, who officially retired in 1992, said the news that the firm was closing up shop struck him "like a death in the family."
After years of departures by partners and failed merger efforts, the firm surrendered this week as profits declined amid a souring economy.
But in better days, a position at WolfBlock wasn't just a coveted one for Jewish attorneys; for a time, it was the only position available for a Jewish attorney in Philadelphia.
Before Steven Arbittier joined in 1963, he hadn't applied to any other firms. He was attracted to WolfBlock not only because of its stellar reputation, he said, but also because of his religion.
"WolfBlock had so many very successful, very brilliant lawyers who were also Jewish that it was a very comfortable place to work," said Arbittier, 70. "You really felt as though it was a meritocracy -- that the only thing that mattered was the quality of your work."
Arbittier, now a retired partner at BallardSpahr, left WolfBlock in 1995 after 32 years. Like many others, he credits the firm with having spurred his involvement in the city's Jewish community, including a stint as president of the JCC Klein Branch and involvement with Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
Burt Siegel, former head of the city's Jewish Community Relations Council, said that WolfBlock always had a hand in the city's Jewish affairs.
"It wasn't uncommon for an associate with the firm to be assigned to work with one of the Jewish organizations, where the partners would say, 'Become involved with Federation or American Jewish Committee,' " noted Siegel, 65. "I guess they thought it was good for the firm, but also on their part it was a noblesse oblige. They were a highly successful law firm, and as leaders in their profession and as people who took their Judaism seriously, they felt an obligation to lend their talent to the Jewish community."
Former WolfBlock associate Mark Aronchick (now a founding shareholder with Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin) arrived in Philadelphia unexpectedly in the early 1970s when his wife began medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Although he was unfamiliar with the city and its Jewish institutions, the firm opened doors and provided opportunities for him that he might never have otherwise had.
"I wanted to get involved with JCRC, and I wound up being the vice chair or leader of 11 different Jewish organizations over the years, all because of WolfBlock," said Aronchick, 59, who later served as the City Solicitor.
Aside from producing any number of Jewish communal leaders -- to say nothing of a host of city officials -- Philadelphia Bar Association chancellor Sayde Ladov, 53, said that the firm has also turned out a number of judges on local and federal courts, many of them Jewish.
But, she said, the firm's reach extends beyond race or religion.
"They've shaped the community by illustrating that, in addition to doing good work, you also have an obligation to be part of the community," said Ladov.
Former WolfBlock partner James Rosenstein, 70, said the firm always had a philanthropic bent.
Rosenstein became a Federation vice president and currently serves as president of the Philadelphia/South Jersey chapter of the AJC. He said that Federation's annual campaign often bore the fruits of the WolfBlock culture.
While some law practices made firm gifts to the campaign, Rosenstein said that the "approach was that each of us, whether we were an associate or a partner, would be expected to make a contribution, and there would be some minimum expectation, some floor level. But everybody was encouraged to contribute above that."
By the 1980s, many so-called Jewish businesses had closed up shop or diversified, according to Friedman's book.
In the case of WolfBlock, the culture of philanthropy broadened, with employees encouraged to "support the community to the greatest extent possible on an individual basis and depending on our individual interests," said Rosenstein.
For many, those interests included the city's Jewish institutions. Rosenstein said that his mentor, Alan Molod, encouraged him to become involved with Federation -- an activity he said was encouraged by the entire WolfBlock community.
"Without that kind of support, the amount of time, effort and energy I was able to commit to the organized Jewish community simply would not have happened," said Rosenstein.
Over time, it also came to hold a place in the hearts of other minority communities, according to Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "While it had a reputation for being a Jewish firm -- and certainly, it had a very strong Jewish make-up -- it was also seen as a place that was friendly to other minorities, people who would otherwise not be accepted in mainstream white-shoe firms in the city at one point or another," he said.
When the firm shuts its doors for good, even those who left it at an earlier stage believe that its traditions will live on.
"I think we all have to work hard to have institutions that carry on the values and traditions and principles that the WolfBlock I knew carried on," said Aronchick. "We will do that at my firm, and I know that my contemporaries who go other places will do their best to do that where they are."