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An Interview with Chancellor Andrew A. Chirls

by Daniel A. Cirucci

Spring 2005, Vol. 68, No. 1

Sometimes you have to lean over and listen very closely when Chancellor Andrews A. Chirls speaks. He’s not likely to raise his voice, even to make a very important point. But don’t dare mistake Andy Chirls’ deliberately low-key approach and all-due deference for a lack of determination. Far from it. Chirls speaks in clear, concise sentences and he’s likely to return to his key points again and again. He knows what he wants to accomplish and he knows how to accomplish it. His steady record of advancement both professionally and as a bar leader demonstrates a keen understanding of organizational and human dynamics and a willingness to pursue his goals without retreat.

It’s worth listening closely to Andy Chirls—and not just for his enunciation of plans and objectives. Interspersed with his narrative you will find wry asides, deft observations, insights into his background and personality and no small amount of wit. We were treated to all of these during a recent interview with the Chancellor at Bar Association headquarters in center city.

You’ve been Chancellor for a while now. What does it feel like?
There are not enough hours in the day to have this much fun and do this many interesting things. Every day is a privilege, figuring out how to advance the needs of our members and our client groups, and how to make the justice system better and the government more responsive to legal needs and the legal situation. It’s such a departure from the practice of law. It’s new every day and it’s exciting.

Do you get a lot of feedback?
I do. I get e-mails from people every time I’m in the paper, telling me what I said right and telling me what they thought I said wrong. I get phone calls, and I get strangers stopping me on the street. It’s really gratifying when people who I don’t know, and it’s often people who are not lawyers, tell me they saw me on a television show at some hour before I would normally be out of bed, or on a radio show that I don’t expect people to be listening to and they have heard, not what I have to say, but what we have to say as a Bar Association.

It’s sort of fun to be noticed and recognized?
Oh, it’s a lot of fun. Before I ran for Chancellor, I asked one of the past Chancellors, “Will this be worth it?” He said, “If you crave attention, it’s worth it.” So I have to say it’s fun to be recognized and it’s gratifying to be recognized for pursuing issues that are important.

How are you doing with balancing all this with your practice?
My firm has been incredibly generous with my time. My clients have also been generous with my time. We have a lot of people covering things for me. And I have to say it’s hard to switch gears. Being Chancellor involves a different set of talents, a different set of skills. It’s not like moving from preparing for one deposition to preparing for a trial in a different case. It’s like switching from basketball to piano, and so it’s not easy to switch back and forth. So far I have managed, but I’ve managed mostly because I have invested so much of my time to serving our Bar Association.

You come from a firm that has produced its share of Chancellors. So, of course, you work with past Chancellors. But when did you get the notion that you might want to be the Chancellor?
I think it was when I started to work as chair of the newly formed Committee on the Legal Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men. I began to see how much working with the Bar Association adds to the level of camaraderie and collegiality of the practice. But I also began to see that working with the Bar Association can enhance some policy points and make the justice system more effective. I knew it in an abstract way, but when I started meeting the justices and the judges who make policy decisions, it made it real to me. And I watched Chancellors who I admired, and I said, “I could do something like that.”

So you began to see that it really made a difference. Which is what made it intriguing to you.
Yes, absolutely.

Speaking of getting things done, what if I said to you, ‘Andy, you’re the Chancellor for this year, but there’s only one thing you can accomplish this year.’ What would it be?
It would be to internationalize our outlook. To be part of making the Bar a leader in how Philadelphia sees itself and acts in relation to business and culture with the world beyond the Delaware River.

As we speak, you’re once again meeting with our counterparts from Lyon, our sister city in France. Tell us a little bit about that relationship because I don’t think many members of the Bar know about it.
We’ve had a Sister City relationship with the Lyon Bar Association since 1996. We have an exchange program of law students and young lawyers who go to each sister city from the other for six months—that’s how it started. This builds trade relations among the people who participate. But it also builds knowledge of how other people practice law in the rest of the world. The relationship between the bar associations has now been mirrored in memoranda of understanding about trade, scientific research and cross-promotion of tourism and culture between Philadelphia and the city of Lyon. When we went there last year, we met with trade officials who asked us to help. And we’ve been very helpful in elevating this to a regional kind of a thing. When Pennsylvania exports to France, it’s the ninth-largest country to which we send our exports. France is the third-largest country with investments in Pennsylvania, and we’re part of making that bigger. We’re also picking up the experience to help us have influence with conferences of lawyers in other countries—we’ve been to conferences in China, we’re working on one in Rome, we’re working on a joint CLE program being run by the bar associations of Vancouver and Philadelphia. And so this Bar Association is internationalizing its outlook and its connections. That helps trade, that helps commerce, and that helps making us broader in the way we deal with them.

In your speech at the Bar Association’s Annual Meeting, you spoke of Benjamin Franklin coming to Philadelphia as a young man. This city was a magnet at that time. It was economically vibrant. It was a center of ideas, of culture, of art. It was an emerging international city in the new nation. What do we have to do to be at that point again, to be the kind of city you spoke of that young people want to come to?
We have to think of ourselves as able to be that way and not be defined by a small vision of ourselves. We have to work together on marketing and explaining to the public, and taking pride for ourselves in our strengths. We have to continue to be a place with progressive and inclusive policies. An example is the domestic partners benefits that our Bar Association has set as an example for a modern, inclusive business and professional community. That draws people. What we’re doing at the Bar Association to include immigrants in the justice system and the commerce system is something that helps to draw people here. The Bar Association is a member of Select Greater Philadelphia—the first trade or professional association to sign on as a supporter—and we’re working on increasing our contacts with other groups that have the same thing in mind. At the same time we’re not waiting for anyone to do anything. We are the ones who are doing the things that we can do and need to do.

How can individual law firms help?
They can participate in the receptions, in the hosting of lawyers from far away. They can participate in our pro bono projects and community outreach projects. And they can be part of the efforts to explain to law firms how they can themselves be hospitable environments for new, creative Philadelphians.

Another thing you’re speaking of, and you just spoke of it again, is the importance of welcoming immigrants, of opening the doors to them in a variety of ways. And people want to know, Andy, where did you get this idea that you wanted outreach to immigrants to be an important part of your year? The Bar Association really hadn’t spoken very much about it prior to this year.
And few Bar Associations have, except for those in the border states. I’ve come to admire the people who get on the boat, get on the plane, and leave everything behind to make a better life for themselves and their families. I have a lot of respect for people who do that—people who put aside the way that they’ve been raised so they can come here and be part of a free enterprise system, a free democratic system. They’re the ones who bring the creativity and a cosmopolitan sort of atmosphere to our city. So I admire them and I want to make sure they’re happy to stay here. One of the great privileges that the Chancellor and other people in the Association get to do, once a month or so, is go down to the Federal Courthouse and swear in the new citizens. And you see that it’s all optimism and no cynicism. To me it’s the greatest thrill to be able to help people turn a page like that in their lives.

I sense that you have this bit of wanderlust. Has it always been there, and what does it mean to you?
Yes, I’ve always loved to travel. Some people like music as their background noise. I like the sound of a foreign language as my background noise. I like turning the corner and seeing something that I didn’t expect to see and I didn’t know was there. So I love traveling and I love expanding my world with my partner Larry Frankel and sharing the experience.

Let’s talk a little bit more about immigration. You know that throughout American history, immigration has sort of been the third rail in politics. How do you react to that?
I get questions that are third rail questions. Questions like, “Why aren’t you making them learn to speak English?” And by the way, none of the Bar’s immigrant opportunity programs are designed to say your participation as a citizen can be complete if you’re not speaking the language. It’s to tide people over and bring them into the system as early as possible. I respond to that by saying, my little world as Bar leader is to improve things for Philadelphia. I’m not here to make national policy. I’m here to tell you that this city, like every city, will only grow on the basis of immigration. So to decide that we’re not going to work on being hospitable and attractive to immigrants, and to say we’re not going to adapt to the value of immigration to our well being, is to decide not to take advantage of and recognize one of the facts of the modern world.

So you’re looking at it from a very practical matter.
Yes. I do have strong opinions on how the federal government can or can’t, and should or shouldn’t, regulate immigration. I’m not driven away from it by the fact that it’s controversial. I know that there is a cultural tide that I’m swimming against that says we don’t need more immigrants for various reasons. I think when opponents use an economic argument about how immigrants undercut the existing labor pool, they’re just wrong because we have a tremendous amount of people who are coming in at all levels from immigration. Yes, they are the people who are growing the food and picking the fruit, and they are the people who are cleaning the hotels. But it’s also the people who are starting the small businesses and big businesses. Twenty-five percent of our computer and information companies were started by or are run by immigrants. They are our next wave of clients.

And it’s also people who are working in high-tech, and biomedical.

Through 1990, the percentage of people who were identified as “American” Nobel Prize winners in science and practical things was more than forty-five percent. So those people broke our space frontier. They fueled our developments. And if we don’t want them here, then they break barriers and fuel developments someplace else.

So do you have an opinion on, for example, the idea that there should be a Constitutional amendment to allow non-native born Americans to run for President?
I have two principles that guide me to the answer. One is the one I learned in first grade, which is that every American child can grow up to be President. And the other one is that we ought not have second-class citizens. And once you are a citizen, you ought to be able to have the symbol and the fact that you can participate to the highest degree. And that includes holding the highest office in the land.

And if people are able to bring about that change to the Constitutional process, then …
I’d be for it.

Let’s talk about taxes. The Bar Association has for the past few years lined up in a city-wide coalition against higher wage taxes and other taxes, and in favor of elimination of dual taxation of certain entities via the net profits and business privilege tax. What are the chances for success on these fronts, and what do you say to people who argue that the city can’t afford to cut tax-generating revenues any further?
The answer to the second question is that we had a representative on the Tax Reform Commission and we endorsed a revenue-neutral, balanced tax cut package, which is designed to rationalize the system. One of the features of this package is that it will end the double taxation of the income of everybody in partnerships, as well as every sole proprietor who’s got a storefront, thriving or deteriorating, in this city. What we endorsed was completely revenue neutral. So the city can afford it. And the city cannot afford to not do it because the system we have now is a deterrent to employment and investment. Everybody who worked on that proposal recognizes that, so the chances of success match exactly the ability of our policymakers to understand the truth and to swallow the pill and do it. It’s gotten to the point that we can’t have the current system. The current system is a whirlpool—it’s just spinning into the drain. And if we want to continue to lose a percentage of the population every decade or so, have fun. We’ll keep the current system.

And you also support continued incremental cuts in the wage tax?
That’s part of the package.

The President seems to be on a campaign to put a cap on med-mal damages. He’s spoken of it several times now. It appears as if it’s going to be one of his priorities. What’s your reaction?
My reaction is that we have a federal system, and the federal system lets states regulate, and states have reacted on an individual basis. And it’s better not to take away their power. One of the strengths of the federal system is that common law develops concepts of what’s right and wrong and of how injuries should be prevented and compensated. That’s the tort system as it has existed in our states since the country was started. And when you federalize and make a statute out of what’s right and wrong and what should be compensated, you’ve frozen the system and the innovations it can bring us. You’ve taken away the ability of the courts and the legislatures in the fifty states—and the juries—to help sort through what the standard of care is and what should be compensation for damages. With that said, our state has begun to show that it is dealing with the economic impediments on people who practice medicine so that they can make a living. Recent Supreme Court rules have cut down in a very short time, by a very large number, the number of malpractice cases. You’ll know in a few months whether they continue to do that. When you set caps on medical malpractice recovery, you are limiting the fair recovery of the people who suffer the most from malpractice. You might enhance the ability of people who practice medicine to make a decent living, but if there are ways to do it other than through federal caps that hurt the most seriously injured people the most, that’s the most important thing to try.

This is a judicial election year. The Bar Association, of course, favors a non-elective system for choosing judges at the appellate level, but Pennsylvania still elects all its judges. What is the message that you want to give to the voters this year as they go through this rather cumbersome process of electing judges?
The message is we are educating the voters about who is qualified. And we want the voters to know that the rated candidates have been through a thorough, fair process that includes a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds. It’s the qualifications of a judge that count. And those qualifications are not political connections. What we have looked at is judgment, at intellectual ability, demonstrating the ability to be fair and objective and hardworking and getting the job done. So we have the ability to make a judgment that the voters should not leave to political insiders.

But you recognize this quest is not for the faint of heart and it’s a tall order to get the public to pick the right judges.
It’s a tall order, I’m on my horse, I’m tilting at the windmill, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure the public is educated appropriately. I also want to work with the party leaders—and other groups that make endorsements—so that they see the importance of these endorsements.

What advice do you have for young lawyers, particularly young associates who seem so overwhelmed by the pressures and stress of this profession and the demands of the profession today?
Do your best to remember that there’s an outside world. My predecessor Sy Kurland used to tell me that practicing law is like taking a country drive in that you should always drive with one arm out the window. You can’t be a real lawyer if you are hermetically sealed up. Do things that expose you to the way your prospective clients carry out their business and their lives. Do things that expose you to other lawyers, engage in things like the Bar Association. And do things that educate you about how the justice system works for real people, which is one of the benefits of taking pro bono cases. If you work on the deals of nonprofits and the cases of people who are not normally in your world, your horizons are bigger and your effectiveness as a lawyer is far more real. And you’ll enjoy it.

As a gay person, you’ve seen remarkable change and, one would argue, progress in terms of tolerance and acceptance during your lifetime. I want to know what you would tell, or what you do tell, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth today.
I tell them that we’ve seen a lot of progress. I tell them that progress is not necessarily permanent, and that we have to work to keep it going. That relies on them participating in the activities they want to participate in. I tell them that inclusiveness brings with it the opportunity to help people understand that gay and lesbian people are citizens and doers just like everybody else. So they have to be citizens and doers.

It was only a few short years ago that we celebrated our Bicentennial as an association. What does the Bar Association need to do now to make sure it is around for another 200 years?
We provide a level of collegiality and a sense of community and the ability to improve the profession. We are fighting to overcome the different kinds of pressures that voluntary activities face. It is not just lawyers, and it’s not just bar associations, it’s everybody that has this incredible amount of stuff thrown at them, and demands on their time that a lot of working people, particularly professionals, thirty-five or forty years ago didn’t face. They were expected to view themselves primarily and almost entirely as professionals who simply went to work. So everybody has more pressures. But we need to communicate the continued effectiveness and values of collegiality and professionalism. And if we do that, we will be here in 200 years, continuing to improve the profession.

And reasons for people to show up and continue to participate in that Association?
We as an association of lawyers contribute to one very basic thing that a lot of trade and professional associations don’t do. We contribute to a stable democracy and to the participatory government that is the miracle and strength of these United States. I'm not one of those people who wraps himself in the flag, but we are contributing in important ways every time we do something that makes our courts better—every time we do something that makes the jury system stronger, that makes people able to get to a forum like a court that makes their treatment in this country fairer. We contribute when we visit the high schools on Law Day and convey to kids our own sense of enthusiasm about the justice system. We have to communicate the important contribution that lawyers make to democracy because if we’re not doing that in 200 years, we’re in trouble.

What book is on your night table right now, what are you reading?
A couple. Where to Go Bird-Watching in South America. It’s preparation for our next trip, which will be to Peru. And Teach Yourself Spanish.

How are you doing with it?
I feel young again, in that I am reading, “see Dick and Jane run,” and just about grasping it. I can read most of People en Espanol and Readers’ Digest in Spanish, and I can hold a practical conversation now and then without making a fool of myself. I gave some short remarks about access to justice in Spanish and was told that I speak about as well as George W. Bush.