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Andrew A Chirls: A Personal Profile

by Abbe F. Fletman

Winter 2005, Vol. 67, No. 4

Andrew Alan Chirls is an accomplished lawyer, a partner at a major law firm and the incoming Chancellor of the nation's oldest bar association. So, what is one of his proudest moments? In 1993, Andy sighted a pair of Black Vultures in northern Montgomery County, far beyond their normal range. He called the sighting in to the Delaware Valley Birdline (215-567-BIRD). It was placed on the recorded report of locally seen birds without equivocation, because when Andy Chirls says he has seen a Black Vulture, you can count on it. This is emblematic of Andy: perceptive, trustworthy, persuasive and possessed of wide interests.

Andy has seen "Inherit the Wind," the 1960 film about the Scopes "monkey" trial, nine times. The movie pitted Spencer Tracy as a thinly disguised fictional rendition of Clarence Darrow against Fredric March, a thinly disguised William Jennings Bryan. Based largely on the Scopes trial transcripts, Tracy defended a high school biology teacher arrested in the 1920s for teaching Darwin's theories. "That's probably why I became a lawyer," said Chirls. "I wanted to grow up to be Spencer Tracy."

But Andy did not always dream of a career in law. Born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 8, 1956, Andy is the third of three boys. Not only did his father, an accountant, receive a degree from Wharton, but his brothers and two uncles also have Penn degrees. Andy's father hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps and study business. In 1973, Andy continued the family tradition and headed off to University City. Having read The Fountainhead, Andy chose a different path than his father and majored in architecture.

"I wanted to design buildings," Andy reminisced. While Andy was "good at drawing the little stuff," his plans were dashed when, in his junior year of college, Andy's design professors encouraged him to pursue a different major. Andy was concerned that if he had to choose another major "I would have to go to Wharton and my father would say, ‘I told you so.'" Already an accomplished negotiator, Andy struck a deal: He could stay in the architecture department as long as he promised never to practice as an architect.

Andy spent a year after college as a construction manager and then entered Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Andy chose law because "I wanted to do something that was creative and had an impact," just like his hero, Spencer Tracy/Clarence Darrow.

Arriving in the Bay Area in 1978, Andy was surprised to discover that "San Francisco was the gay capital of the world." He also was surprised to meet Larry Frankel in the back row of his One-L torts course. Ever since—for twenty-six years now—their domestic partnership has been going strong.

Early Days at Wolf Block
After law school, Andy moved back to the East Coast to clerk for Judge Stanley Brotman of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Larry, a lifelong Californian, moved to Philadelphia with Andy and began working in a small practice in West Philadelphia.

In 1982, Andy joined Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen LLP as an associate in the Litigation Department. Andy describes Wolf Block as "the Parthenon of law firms." Andy particularly remembers "wonderful trials with Frank Poul." He describes "Frenchy"—as dozens of Wolf Block lawyers have come to know Poul—as "loving the collection of facts, a scholar in a quiet and unassuming way and excellent in persuasion." Frenchy must have been an excellent mentor because this description equally applies to Andy today.

Andy is an experienced commercial trial lawyer. He is counsel to the AHP Settlement Trust, a $3.55 billion entity that administers medical monitoring and monetary benefits to more than 400,000 users of the diet drug combination Fen Phen. Andy has represented both sides in disputes over the valuation of land and improvements and over the right to condemn property. He has represented an array of large and small publishers in libel and defamation litigation and in litigation over business transactions in the communications field, including a merger between two public companies. Andy's other major litigation work has been as class counsel in securities litigation, in legal malpractice, attorney discipline and real estate cases, and in controversies between manufacturers and distributors.

Human Rights Activist
Andy has long been a quiet—and devastatingly effective—activist. While a law student, Andy persuaded the dean and placement director at Boalt to send a questionnaire to employers to find out their attitudes about hiring sexual minorities. While the questionnaire resulted in some positive responses, Andy still remembers the law firm that stated, "We don't hire criminals or fags."

In 1990, Andy became the first openly gay member of the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, the local agency that adjudicates discrimination claims and mediates racial and ethnic disputes. When Andy went to Wolf Block's Executive Committee to seek approval of his activities, he was concerned that the firm's clients might disagree with the positions he would take as a member of the Commission. As Andy recalled, one of the leaders of the Executive Committee of the firm said, "If they have a problem, then it's their problem—not ours and not yours." This attitude came to characterize Wolf Block's reaction to Andy's activities. "The firm has always supported me in all my public affairs work," Andy said.

Andy worked on gay rights cases while still in law school and tried the first AIDS discrimination jury trial in Pennsylvania. He led the effort to get the twenty-five largest law firms in Philadelphia to commit to a model nondiscrimination policy endorsed by the Philadelphia Bar Association that includes gay men and lesbians. He served on the national board of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund for six years, including a stint as secretary. Lambda is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, the transgendered and people with HIV or AIDS. Andy also was instrumental in the establishment by the Philadelphia Bar Association of the Committee on the Legal Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men. "Our Bar Association was among the first to do this," says Andy. "We added to the inclusiveness and the camaraderie of the profession."

Andy's community work has not been confined to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) community. While a Human Relations commissioner, Andy participated in a report on equity in city services for the Latino community. After fourteen years, some of the recommendations of this report were finally adopted by the city's managing director's office. The city now gives consideration to skill in a foreign language as a job qualification in assigning civil scores, opening the doors for hiring of Latinos and others, and ensuring the better delivery of services.

Lifelong Commitment
Andy's partner, Larry, is equally involved in changing the world. Andy recalls that when he met Larry in 1978 their first conversation was "around activism." In 1992, Larry left the practice of law to join the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Larry served for a time as executive director, and is now the Pennsylvania chapter's chief lobbyist.

On September 7, 2003, Andy and Larry had their wedding. The ceremony in a friend's backyard has no legal effect, though Andy says that, even after more than two decades together, standing before family and friends and taking vows was significant.

Other Interests
Andy and Larry have traveled the globe, including four trips to Israel, where Larry's brother, sister-in-law, a niece and two nephews have lived. Their travels also have taken them to places such as Croatia, Argentina, Slovakia, Brazil and Spain.

Whether here or abroad, Andy is always on the lookout for birds. He describes bird watching as "where Type A meets Type B. It's a relaxing hobby with every opportunity for measuring achievement." The achievement comes in keeping a list of sightings. He has spotted 317 North American birds alone.

Andy has loved jazz since he was 12 when a relative, Harold Sterling, gave him a collection of 78-rpm records that included performances by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. In addition to listening to classic jazz, Andy plays jazz and the American songbook on the piano. (If only he could sing, Harry Connick Jr. would have to watch out!) Andy's love of musicals led him to serve as general counsel and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Prince Music Theater of Philadelphia.

Andy is widely read, although he claims being "self-taught in literature and history." Since he spent his college years studying folklore in addition to architecture, his curriculum was light on the classics. "At 39," he said, "I realized I better read Hamlet and Macbeth or I would not be educated by the time I was 40."

Uncle Andy
Andy and Larry's enormous circle of family and friends includes nieces, nephews and the children of their adult friends. I have been fortunate to call Andy a friend for eighteen years. Whenever my 14-year-old son needs to tie a bow tie, "Uncle Andy" is his first call. And a few days after my daughter was born, her godparents Andy and Larry were on our doorstep to cook dinner for us, notwithstanding a raging blizzard. They had walked from Center City to Fairmount with trout in their backpacks.

Andy and Larry own no television, and they bought their first car only a few years ago. Andy's avoidance of mass media, however, isn't uniform. While he fondly remembers practicing law before faxes, he is never far from his cell phone and portable e-mail device. The absence of television does not keep Andy and Larry from the Phillies. For important games, they can be found at a Center City sports bar or huddled by the radio.

In addition to his dry wit, Andy is known for his legendary appetite. His longtime friend Bob Kaufman recalls their freshman group eating dinner at the Class of '23 Dining Hall at Penn. "We just ate and ate and ate because we were guys, and we weren't charged by the piece or pound or anything," Bob recalled. "But Andy could out-eat any of us. And he didn't waste valuable time or stomach space with luxury items like salads. Andy just ate main courses and desserts. And he probably went through four of each. It was amazing." More amazing, despite his intake, Andy always stays trim.

Even in cold weather Andy almost never wears an overcoat but can often be seen on the streets of Philadelphia sporting only a colorful scarf as outerwear. So if you see a well-dressed gentleman with a bright yellow scarf sauntering down Walnut Street on a frigid winter day, you should feel as free to stop him to talk about vintage jazz or Czechoslovakian spy novels as about the many things he will accomplish as the next Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.