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An Interview with Chancellor Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua

by Daniel A. Cirucci

Spring 2004, Vol. 67, No. 1

The Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association stands alone. Though he or she may be respected, admired, applauded and even heralded by the legal community, the Chancellor assumes a solitary responsibility. The Chancellor must be the spokesperson for the profession and must make the tough decisions that help to define the Association’s role in the life of the profession, the city and world beyond. The Philadelphia Bar Association’s 77th Chancellor, Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua, understands this unique responsibility.

He is serious, attentive and deliberate. But regardless of the issue or matter at hand, he is also nonetheless motivated to define, decide and to act. You can almost hear a voice inside him calling “Avanti!” as he sorts through parts of his agenda for the year: a new Commerce Court; re-examination of the Association’s judicial ratings process; mandatory CLE for judges; the return of the annual Bench-Bar Conference; tax reform for the city; a new Web site for the Association; a Civil Litigation Section; and added efforts to promote the Association’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service.

It’s an ambitious agenda. But Bevilacqua is already busy building the support he will need to put his ideas into action. We talked with him about those ideas and other matters recently at his Center City office.

Daniel A. Cirruci: How and why did you become involved in the Philadelphia Bar Association? What did it do for you?

Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua: As with most things in life, you need someone to point the way, a mentor. My Bar Association mentor was a colleague in the City Solicitor’s Office. Her name was Sophie Sherman. Sophie took me aside one day in the early 1980s and strongly encouraged me to become more actively involved in the Association. So that’s how I got started.

So it was just a matter of somebody suggesting to you, asking you, to become involved?

Yes. But she also suggested that a complete lawyer combines legal ability, political involvement and community commitment. I believe Sophie was correct. A lawyer who doesn’t get involved in the community, who isn’t an excellent technical and capable counselor, and who isn’t involved in the political process is incomplete. The Bar Association adds unique value to a more complete lawyer, a more fully realized professional. For the Philadelphia lawyer, all of the elements come together.

How did the Bar Association help you in your career?

First, and obviously, it introduced me to a whole new group of superb lawyers. The cross-fertilization and exchange that occurred—with lawyers in different firms with slightly different value structures—was an important educational process for me. Up until that time I was more an opponent than a colleague. The interaction was mainly through litigation. I represented a client, they represented a client. There was little opportunity to get to know the other lawyers—either co-counsel or my opponent—as professionals, as lawyers, not just as opponents. It was a mind-expanding experience. That person-to-person exchange exists today and is even more valuable as our practices become evermore specialized and compartmentalized. That’s why I encourage people to get involved and to participate in the Bar Association.

As an immigrant, you’ve made your own journey. But you’ve sort of dismissed that and said it’s really unremarkable. Why do you say that it’s unremarkable?

I have heard the remarkable stories of so many Chancellors. So many come from relatively humble beginnings. That’s why I say my story is unremarkable. The world I live in today is very different from the small hill town in Abruzzi, Italy, where I came from. All of this I understand to be my own personal journey, but again, I say there are those who have traveled as tortuous and as difficult a path to the Chancellor’s office. I have not forgotten my roots. I have held significant leadership positions in the Order Sons of Italy and The Justinian Society. I helped form the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Italy America Chamber of Commerce. But having said that, I burst with pride at being an American citizen. I live here both mentally and physically. I think a lot of immigrants have trouble letting go; they don’t have the mental ease, the feeling that “this is my home.” Not me. This is the greatest nation on earth. I am privileged to be an American.

Let’s talk a little bit about the issues that you’re focusing on this year. Let’s start off with the push for a Business Court. Why do you think it’s so important now, and what do you think the chances are for it?

I am very optimistic. The very fact that the Commerce Case Program is a program and not a separate, statutorily established court division is the reason why this is a giant step. Institutionalizing this excellent program is our goal. Philadelphia will take a giant step forward in creating a true Business Court if we create a Business Court division in the First Judicial District.

And you think it’ll be good for business, good for the local economy in Philadelphia?

The more we do to strengthen and nurture the business community in Philadelphia, the better the city will do, the more taxes they’ll collect, and the more the city will be able to take care of its citizens. We need to have a thriving economy. A Business Court will facilitate the resolution of business disputes and will therefore be immensely helpful to entities doing business in Philadelphia.

And you see the legal community in Philadelphia as key to a thriving economy?

I think we’re underappreciated, even in the business community. The legal services sector is clearly one of the largest leaseholders in Center City. Between our large law firms and our medium and smaller firms, we probably have twenty-five percent of the leased office space in Center City, employing tens of thousands of people. The legal services community in Philadelphia is underappreciated by our business and political leaders.

One of the things we do see is Philadelphia firms maintaining their base presence in Philadelphia—be they regional or even national firms—but we have seen an increase in the firms opening satellite offices, particularly in the surrounding counties. How should the Bar Association react to that?

I think we need to reinvent the Philadelphia Bar Association as the Greater Philadelphia Bar Association. I like to think of it that way because our Association has grown into a regional association. We have seen a significant increase in our associate memberships.

Which is the membership in surrounding counties?

Right, and that’s a great development that we need to recognize and encourage because regionalization is going to continue. I think you have to recognize the dual impact of the city’s punitive tax policy for partnerships and the impact of technology. I can be in touch with my clients from anywhere. If you have a computer and a modem, if you have a cell phone and a Blackberry, you are essentially in immediate contact with your client. You are in the office down the hall. I think we have to recognize that our Association will continue to be vibrant and strong, as long as we satisfy the needs of our members—if we continue to speak for them. Right now, we’ve put the Business Court and the city’s tax policy on our front burner.

You’re going to oversee as Chancellor the redevelopment, the debut, of a whole new Bar Association Web site. What are the implications of that?

We need to have a fully interactive site, a site that not only delivers fresh, new impact stories to our members but also allows them to engage in specialized discussions concerning their problems. My vision is that this new site will permit the members to talk to each other, to raise issues that are important. Significant developments in tax or business or the public interest community will all be immediately available. You don’t have to go to secondary sources. If you’re a member of those Sections, those stories are going to be there, and you can read about whatever happened in that specialty. If you want to engage the Section members or the Committee members in a dialog, you should be able to do that. We need to build on the tremendous success of the Probate and Trust Section site. More of the Sections and Committees will be able to post electronic content crucial to the Section’s and Committee’s members.

And you’ll be able to access Bar Association events, services and programs?

That’s a given. But right now, we have a three-inch-thick Legal Directory on our desks. In the age of the computer, that’s an anachronism. We have to address that. We need to get those books off our desks and into our computers.

And that’s the direction we’re moving?

I hope so. I understand that it takes a lot of hard work from a lot of people. We have a great Technology Committee working on this, we’ve got great people at the Association. It’s a vision we will realize.

Let’s talk about mandatory continuing legal education for judges. This is another thing that you have proposed. What has the reaction been?

It has been very positive. The First Judicial District has been working very hard to make quality programs available to our judges. We applaud them for this significant effort. I was impressed by the reaction from the Supreme Court justices at the Annual Meeting and Luncheon—they were entirely supportive. Lifelong learning is the hallmark of a good lawyer, a professional. I think it cuts across professional lines. Whether you’re an accountant or a physician or a lawyer, those who are committed to a process of lifelong learning distinguish themselves at the top of their profession. Those are the counselors you want to seek out. Judges are no less important and should embrace this concept.

So it’s mandatory, but approach it as if it were not mandatory?

Professionalism requires a commitment to lifelong learning. It is something all of us in the legal community should zealously pursue, day in and day out. Many do it, a lot don’t. And so the need for mandating it. It’s time to expand mandatory education to include the judiciary.

This [2004] is not a judicial election year, but you have put judicial selection on the front burner. You plan to take the opportunity to examine it now for what purpose?

We have not revisited the organization of our excellent Judicial Commission in quite some time. It’s time to look at the structure and the function of the Commission, given modern reality. For instance, it’s silly for us to expect to have an impact on the political party endorsements if we don’t conclude our evaluation process until late March or even later. So goal number one is to move the timeline forward six months. I’ve heard all of the arguments against moving our evaluation up: “It would be unfair to candidates, people don’t know they’re going to run.” I don’t believe that for a minute. People do know they’re going to run. They’ve been working behind the scenes for years in order to run. It should not be an issue if we move the process up by six months.

Here’s where your advice about knowing politics and being politically involved comes in; you have been there.

I know the party endorsements happen in February. If we want to be relevant we need to have our evaluation process completed by next January. I know if we do that we’re more likely to get the political parties saying, “We’re not going to endorse someone who’s not recommended.”

This will save us a lot of trouble down the road?

Hopefully. So that’s our primary goal. Do we have other goals? Of course. We also need to get our message out to the electorate more aggressively and more vibrantly. Most judges are conscientious and hardworking; we should all be proud of them. But there are some judges who are not. We should identify those individuals and do something about it. It’s not only about losing an election. Some of them are violating their judicial oath. They should be called to task for it.

Speaking of getting the message out, you want to get the message out on a service that the Bar already provides but that you seem to feel not enough people know about or are taking advantage of, and that is the Lawyer Referral Service.

Lawyer Referral is a great program. It allows folks who don’t know where to turn to find legal help to call the Bar Association and get the legal help they need. The Philadelphia Bar Association is a natural default for those individuals who really can’t find a lawyer. So we need to bring that message across to the community. I’ve called for a threefold increase in the LRIS advertising budget.

Now you’re going to interject some drama and excitement into the year as well, kicking off with your Spring Quarterly where you’re going to have a very special guest and a new award. What’s behind it?

It’s always better to accentuate the positive. We should celebrate the achievements of lawyers who value scholarship and professionalism, who are the embodiment of the spirit of the Philadelphia lawyer. Many lawyers have these characteristics, and some of our past Chancellors have called the Association to a higher level of professionalism and civility. For the Spring Quarterly, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has agreed to speak and to lend his name to this new award. He is a wonderful exemplar of these core values. In addition, ABA President Dennis Archer will also be with us. We will have a great Quarterly on April 29.

Reviewing all of the things you talked about, what advice would you give to young lawyers today?

There’s really no difference any longer between being a young lawyer and being a senior partner. Work hard. Do excellent work. Become a leader of your community and of your profession. So my advice to everyone is the same.

Let’s talk about some of the other things that are important to you. First, the Civil Litigation Section.

Very important. I greatly believe in specialization. The benefits of Section membership are not available to litigators, and they should be. The ability to elect their own Section leaders and to formulate their own agenda will build interest among our members and provide the platform for greater participation. I’m very excited about this.

In the fall, we’re going to welcome African-American federal judges from throughout the country, of which there are a reasonably significant number.

We expect more than a hundred African-American federal judges to convene for this biannual conference. It’s a conference that is being organized through the leadership of Chief Judge James T. Giles but also with the strong support of the Bar Association. We have an ambitious program. Audrey C. Talley and Bernard W. Smalley have agreed to co-chair the conference on behalf of the Association. We are all looking forward to working closely with Judge Giles, Judge Theodore A. McKee and other members of the planning committee.

Why did you decide to bring back the Bench-Bar Conference, which is going to be held this year in the beginning of November in Atlantic City?

We lost something when we did away with the Bench-Bar Conference. It historically provided an opportunity for lawyers and judges to get to know each other outside of their formal roles. It’s important to build bridges of understanding between the bench and bar. Doing so builds an infrastructure of trust and goodwill. When I talk to a judge in a social setting we are more likely to talk about our families and our personal goals. That carries over into the professional sphere when we treat each other as human beings as opposed to role-playing. It’s a very valuable thing to do. Camaraderie and collegiality are very important.

Is there anything I’ve missed that you want to mention here?

I really think we need to put the interests of Philadelphia lawyers and the ancillary businesses we support before the administration as it begins to formulate a budget. Tax policy is important, and it directly affects us all. I don’t think the city appreciates the contributions either its lawyers or its judges make to the economic well being of our community. We need to thoughtfully communicate that message on behalf of the legal services sector.

Are you one of those who believes that lowering taxes will actually, in the end, create more revenue to the city by stimulating business and jobs and growth?

The business privilege tax is a fairness issue. The BPT is punitive, and it mostly affects law firms. It treats professional associations differently and taxes them most severely. The BPT has to be repealed.