Diversity - Bar Associations The Philadelphia Bar Association: Setting Standards For Philadelphia And Beyond

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Chirls, would you tell our readers something about your career?

Chirls: I'm one of those old fashioned people who has had the same job for 23 years. I've been at WolfBlock since 1982, following a year-long clerkship with the U.S. District Court in New Jersey. My practice areas are business litigation, eminent domain and products liability. I've enjoyed trying cases in a diversity of substantive legal areas.

Editor: In that case, you have seen the development of a very important law firm. Please tell us about WolfBlock's evolution over this period.

Chirls: It is not unusual for Philadephia firms to look beyond the five counties that surround the city for business. There is a great deal of legal talent in Philadelphia, and WolfBlock has its share. Over the years I have been very pleased with the strategic combinations that have resulted in WolfBlock having a presence in New York, New Jersey and Delaware and two offices in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. It is exciting and very gratifying to be able to serve such a region with lawyers of the very highest caliber.

Editor: How did your practice evolve over this period?

Chirls: My practice reflects the development of the firm. In the early years I worked on local real estate deals and a great variety of small litigation matters. Today I spend most of my time on a major national litigation. Over the years I have been fortunate to handle a considerable variety of cases, from eminent domain matters which, by their nature, are concerned with local real estate, to securities litigation of national importance. I am lucky to be a First Amendment lawyer, in libel and defamation and also in the resolution of disputes over religious property. I have also had an opportunity to represent foreign clients engaged in business activities here. All of this developed over time, and I have found that dealing with issues of great complexity, in addition to the sheer variety of matters, is very stimulating.

Editor: Can you tell us something, in addition, about the parallel career you have pursued at the Philadelphia Bar Association?

Chirls: I came to bar leadership later than most people who head bar associations. I didn't work my way up through the young lawyers division and those kinds of useful activities. Some 10 or 12 years ago I became involved in committee work, including judicial selection and reform of the City of Philadelphia Charter. My Philadelphia Bar Association career really took off, however, when the Association formed the Committee on the Legal Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men in 1996. I was the first co-chair of that committee. The Philadelphia Bar Association was the sixth bar association in the country to establish a committee on that topic.

A bar association promotes a degree of collegiality among practitioners that is extremely important for the profession. Over the course of my career, I have seen that it is becoming increasingly possible to do a deal or handle a case without ever seeing the other lawyers on the matter, whether they are allies and colleagues or adversaries, and without ever connecting to them on a face-to-face basis. I do not think that is a good thing. In my view, interacting with your peers makes you a better lawyer and results in better service for your clients. Bar associations provide a forum for that kind of interaction.

Editor: Over the course of your career you have also seen an increase in inclusiveness and in sensitivity to minority issues.

Chirls: Yes. The Philadelphia Bar Association has promoted model guidelines and policies on diversity and employment practices for years. Our suggested guidelines for legal employers extend to sexual harassment issues, to parenting, elder care, and the like. We were the first bar association to make domestic partners' health coverage available to its members. The members of the Association's Large Firm Management Committee, including the 25 largest firms in Philadelphia, long ago committed to a non-discrimination policy concerning sexual orientation. We take pride in having had a leadership that includes women and racial minorities, all with the support of the membership, and I believe this has had an impact on bar associations all across the country and at both the state and federal levels.

Editor: When we interviewed you last, you were Chancellor-Elect of the Philadelphia Bar Association. You are now Chancellor. What are the themes you have focused on for your term of office?

Chirls: I gave a vision speech in December to outline my programs and the issues we would deal with in 2005. Some of them are business issues and some focus on social change. For one thing, the manner in which partners in partnerships in Philadelphia, including law partnerships, pay overlapping taxes and, indeed, are taxed twice on the same income, must be changed. Philadelphia lawyers export knowledge, professionalism and problem solving when they work on cases and transactions in other cities, and adding to the price of our export compromises our ability to do that. We used to export hats and steel, and today knowledge is the city's principal export.

Two other business issues revolve around the themes of immigrant opportunity and international outlook. Our city, like all American cities, is only going to grow by attracting people from someplace else. Almost any American city that has grown in the last 30 years has done it by attracting people from beyond the 50 states. Domestic population growth in cities is basically non-existent. It is important that people from beyond the 50 states feel welcome, thatthey find the city hospitable for their families and for their businesses. To meet that need, they must have access to the courts and the legal system. That entails access through their own languages - the availability of interpreters - and, in addition, a very basic understanding of what the court system is and how it works. The Association is going to reach out to the various immigrant communities by holding our clinics and workshops on, say, establishing small businesses or gaining access to the zoning system. So we are going to teach our People's Law School in Russian and Spanish, and our Lawyers' Information and Referral System will be available in Spanish.

Then there is the international outlook. We are going to try to get the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to change the present rules and to permit foreign lawyers with advanced American law degrees to practice in Pennsylvania. We lose these talented, ambitious foreign lawyers to other states, and when we do, we lose their international contacts. We are also going to promote exchange programs with foreign bar associations and educational programs involving foreign lawyers, judges and regulators. I went to Lyon to meet with trade officials and bar leaders in Europe, and I saw how a city and its bar can organize international business attraction efforts. We can do it better here. We can trumpet the effectiveness of our courts, which are as fast and efficient as the courts in any big American city, and in the process tell people why the courts add to the business environment here.

Editor: Do you find that the authorities are sympathetic to these efforts?

Chirls: I am sure that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give serious consideration to the proposal to permit foreign lawyers to practice here. A number of people have asked whether other bodies, such as the government and the Chamber of Commerce, ought to be spearheading our efforts on immigration opportunity and international outlook. I think the Philadelphia Bar Association is uniquely placed to move this proposal forward where we focus on what the legal system can do in these areas. I have received a great deal of support on it from within the organization. The immigrant opportunity proposal has also been well received, particularly by community groups which are directly affected. That is very gratifying. We can't wait for the government and the other business groups to do it all. We are going to do our part, and maybe we will stimulate more from the others when we show how effective we are.

Editor: As you know, this issue of our publication has a specific focus on diversity, something to which you have dedicated much of your career. What are the things that need to be addressed? Where can we improve our performance?

Chirls: It is interesting that you say performance. Everyone talks about diversity, but the real question has to do with implementing it, making it happen. Most of the law firms with which I am familiar have very clear and well constructed plans, but not all of them have proceeded to practice what they preach at the same speed. Mentoring and matching up minority summer associates are key concerns of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group, which has been a very practical resource for the city's law firms. There are also several issues of interest to lawyers with young families which must be addressed, including access to part-time work, flexible time, day care, and so on.

One of the things that would advance the diversity effort is to make the city more attractive to everyone . We can do this with good HR policies, and we can also do it most effectively by having growth. The more attractive professional life is in Philadelphia, the easier it is to recruit, and retain, the best people, minority and non-minority alike.

Editor: What is the role of the Philadelphia Bar Association in setting standards for inclusion?

Chirls: The Association is a resource for the profession. We have committees and task forces that develop initiatives and model policies. We conduct educational programs, and because of our CLE curriculum these have an extensive reach. Recently we published a roundtable discussion in our magazine on part-time and flex-time policies and on making a law firm environment hospitable. We support the work of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group. In all of these undertakings we are attempting to project an image and to encourage the values that underlie diversity and inclusiveness.

Editor: And the law firm community? What can a leading firm such as WolfBlock do to set standards for diversity in the profession?

Chirls: Showing the way means leading by example, not just talking about doing the right thing. Bernard Lee, vice chair of WolfBlock's executive committee and one of Philadelphia's leading real estate lawyers, is African American. His success exemplifies this kind of leadership. Similarly, the firm's work with the Diversity Law Group and its conscious efforts to hire African American, Hispanic and Asian associates influences what other firms do with their diversity initiatives. And may I say that the workplace hospitality that WolfBlock has extended to its gay and lesbian lawyers is quite unprecedented? We were the first in the city to have domestic partners' insurance benefits, and the first to have a policy that we wouldn't discriminate based on sexual orientation - long before it was fashionable.

Certainly there is a statement being made by a firm which is the first in the country to have sent an openly gay chancellor to a major bar association - and by that association in electing its first chancellor of that orientation.

Editor: Over the years, WolfBlock has sent seven of its partners to serve as Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Each of those chancellorships has resonated at the firm, I am sure. How would you like to see your chancellorship remembered at WolfBlock?

Chirls: I am honored to hold this office. I have a duty to conduct the affairs of the office in such a way as to reflect well on myself, on the firm and its partners, on the 13,000 members of the Association and, indeed, on the entire profession. If I meet my responsibilities, if my term of office is a credit to WolfBlock, then I will be able to join a long list of people at the firm, including Jerry Shestack, former President of the American Bar Association, two former Presidents of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and six other Chancellors of the Philadelphia Bar Association who have exemplified WolfBlock's commitment to public service. That is a very great incentive for me.

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