Philadelphia - Bar Associations The Philadelphia Bar Association: An Organization With Energy And Heart

Thursday, July 1, 2004 - 01:00


Editor: Mr. Chirls, would you tell us something about your background and experience?



Chirls: I attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in architecture and environmental design.I then went to law school at the University of California, Berkeley. I have been a trial lawyer at WolfBlock since October of 1982. In addition to my litigation practice, I have been involved in a number of civic and community organizations, including the Philadelphia Commission of Human Relations, for which I served as chair. This organization resolves employment and discrimination disputes and works to improve inter-group relations within the city.I was also on the governing board of the LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund for six years, and I have been on the board of the Prince Music Theater, a non-profit music theater organization which built one of the first new theater facilities in Philadelphia within the past twenty years.



Editor: Your very busy practice at one of the city's principal law firms and your civic work must consume a great deal of your time, but you have had a parallel career with the Philadelphia Bar Association. Would you tell us how you were introduced to and began working on Bar Association initiatives?



Chirls:The firm has always encouraged Bar Association activities. They give lawyers an opportunity to develop a certain collegiality and camaraderie with the lawyers who are going to be both colleagues and opponents in litigation and in transactions. Early in my career I was involved in Bar Association committee work on the reform of the Philadelphia City Charter and with the Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention. These were extremely valuable for me, not only because of the people I was able to meet but also because I had a real sense that I was working on projects to make the city a better place. In 1996 it became apparent to the leadership of the Bar Association that it was time to establish a committee on the legal rights of lesbians and gay men and on their assimilation into the legal profession. In this regard, I worked on the Association's insurance program in making domestic partnership benefits available to the partners of lawyers and employees of legal organizations. In time, this brought me to the chairmanship of the Association's Committee on the Legal Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men in its first year.

It's very rewarding to work on behalf of a bar association, to utilize one's professional skills to benefit the profession and also the general public. The Philadelphia Bar Association has 13,000 members, 12,000 of whom are lawyers. The membership also includes judges and adjunct members. The opportunity to work constructively with members of the profession outside the office makes for a wonderful educational experience and is an opportunity to help the community.



Editor: One of your predecesors has been Audrey Talley, the first African American woman to serve as Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. You have worked with her during her term of office. Is she going to be a tough act to follow?



Chirls: Audrey is an inclusive person. She is determined to ensure that people in the membership, as well as people in leadership positions, are heard. In addition to taking a position on a variety of public policy issues, Audrey has had a particular focus on providing services to the Association's members. This includes technical advice and interacting with the courts to see that the bar and the bench are communicating effectively in the operation of the court system. The Association's publications, both print publications and its website and electronic communications, have been improved as well. It has been a privilege for me to be part of these developments. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to work with the current Chancellor, Gabe Bevilacqua.



Editor: What are the goals that you see for your term of office as Chancellor?



Chirls: We have a critical need to work with the rest of the business community in Philadelphia.The Philadelphia tax structure must be rationalized, and to do that we must convince the political leadership that the city needs a business base and a population base to give lawyers work and to provide the tax revenues necessary for the city to work. The interests of the legal profession intersect with those of the city on this point since the former cannot function without a viable client base. Accordingly, we have been working very hard this past year to persuade the City Council that an equitable and sensible tax structure is necessary if we are to attract economic development. That discussion continues.

Philadelphia is no different from many other American cities in many respects.The ones that have grown have done so not because of migration from the suburbs - the movement is mostly in the opposite direction - but by attracting the most ambitious, the best and brightest people from beyond, sometimes far beyond, their borders. I expect the Bar Association is going to develop a number of initiatives aimed at promoting Philadelphia as a good place to live and work. This includes the interaction between the business community and the city and state governments. The court system is also important in attracting national and international business, and the Bar Association is almost certainly going to be part of the effort to institutionalize Philadelphia's Commerce Court. Depicting the city as one that welcomes business, and supports it once it is here, is very high on the agenda.

When foreign business enterprises think about litigation in the United States very often they have a picture of endless discovery, trials that never take place and, if they do, never end. This is not the case in Philadelphia, but we do need to see that the story is told. In our state courts we have an excellent record of reasonable and controlled discovery - that is fair to both sides, as well as efficient - and of speedy trials. The Bar Association has an obligation to convey the message that Philadelphia is a good place to do business, a fair place to conduct business litigation and a wonderful legal service resource for the business community.



Editor: Where would you like the Philadelphia Bar Association to be when you hand overto a new Chancellor?



Chirls: I would like the membership to be aware of all of the things the Association has done and continues to do for them. The Association has taken a leadership position on a variety of issues of concern to the legal community, including the relationship between the bar and the bench - and particularly the partnership that ensures that the courts are effective for litigants, for the lawyers who represent them and for the general public - and the experience of our citizens in performing jury duty. The benefits of practicing law as an LLC or an LLP are also of concern to the Association, and we are working to improve those benefits. These are things of direct concern to the membership - they are in addition to the work we do to attempt to showcase the city and enhance its reputation as a good place to live and work - but I am not certain all of the members understand how many initiatives are underway, nor how effective they are.

The Philadelphia Bar Association is a voluntary bar association, and it enjoys a very high membership rate among lawyers practicing in the city. This is in large degree owing to having effective programs.The Association is the channel through which many lawyers get their malpractice insurance, life insurance and personal insurance coverage. Nevertheless, the number of lawyers working in Philadelphia has not increased over the past ten years. I would hope, if we are successful in our efforts to promote the city and, at the same time, to enhance the services that we provide to our membership, that the number of lawyers will begin to increase again.



Editor: Please tell us about the role the Philadelphia Bar Association plays in the larger Philadelphia community.



Chirls: Part of the Association's mission is to connect the Philadelphia legal community to the larger Philadelphia community. We constitute a group of people who provide a very large portion of the volunteers whose efforts hold the city together. Our members fill leadership positions in all of the city's non-profit organizations, its social agencies, educational institutions, hospitals and healthcare organizations, its museums and theatres and performing arts organizations. During Law Week the Association's members appeared in hundreds of the city's schools to discuss Brown vs. The Board of Education and the meaning of equality in America.

The Philadelphia Bar Association is a forum for discussion and a kind of overarching support organization for the 20 or 25 legal service organizations which serve indigents, senior citizens, the victims of discrimination, people with AIDS, and the like. These are community-based organizations for the most part, funded partly by governmental and partly by private means, and we are in a position, through the volunteer efforts of our membership, to channel legal resources to those who have come to them in need. I would hesitate to quantify this contribution, but on an annual basis it must amount to hundreds of thousands of hours of free legal services. It serves to ensure that this city has a legal system that addresses the needs of its people.

The Philadelphia Bar Association speaks for equal access to justice, and we constitute a voice for good government.



Editor: Would you tell us something about WolfBlock's place in the Philadelphia legal community and in the larger community?



Chirls: WolfBlock is one of the leading law firms in Philadelphia and in the region. In addition to a very dynamic business law practice, the firm is engaged in helping government do its job and in suppporting the non-profit sector, both professionally and in a volunteer capacity. I do not think there is any kind of institution in the city - whether in the arts, education, healthcare, social welfare, civil rights, elections, and whether public or private - where members of WolfBlock are not involved. We are everywhere, and we are proud to be everywhere.

WolfBlock has had a President of the American Bar Association and a President of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. And I am particularly pleased to say that seven Chancellors of the Philadelphia Bar Association have walked its halls.

Please email the interviewee at achirls@wolfblock.com with questions about this interview.