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December 08, 2015

Inaugural Address of Gaetan J. Alfano, 89th Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association

Gaetan J. Alfano photo

Thank you, Al.

Please join me in congratulating President Judge Woods-Skipper, Dave Richman and Harold Datz on their well-deserved awards.

Also, let's congratulate my colleague, Al Dandridge, on his service to our Association. As you are aware, Al sounded the call at this event last year, encouraging all members of our legal community to do more for our community-at-large. With this, he launched the Boots on the Ground community initiative, which has resulted in projects, donations, and hands-on contributions to our community members in need.

Additionally, his passion for our veterans has resulted in special partnerships, as well as an outstanding Chancellor's Forum with Holly Petreaus, focused on the needs of service members. Al also took the lead in making important financial decisions that we will benefit from for years to come. Al - thank you for your hard work and leadership.

So, when I started out in the District Attorney's Office in 1980, this was my class of new assistant district attorneys. I'm up in the left hand corner. Judges Bradley and Mirarchi swore us in. My boss is in the picture, sitting next to Judge Bradley. You may recognize him.

After the swearing in ceremony, we had a small reception and my boss, Ed Rendell, who never has been shy about speaking his mind, decided to do an impromptu evaluation of all of us. So, when he gets to me he announces… "Gaetan, you know, he's not the smartest guy, not the best educated guy, and not the most personable guy. But he works hard."

Now, that wasn't just a backhanded compliment. That was a backhanded, knock you to the ground, kick you in the ribs compliment.

But a couple of things came out of that assessment. First, he was right - I'll never be the smartest guy in the room.

Second, I may have gotten off easy because this is what Ed Rendell now is saying about people and at least I didn't get called a "wuss" back then.

So, how can you trust the oldest association of lawyers in the United States to someone who's so lacking? Fortunately, I have a lot of support.

I have the help of my colleagues at the Pietragallo firm, including my longstanding partner, Marc Raspanti. I have the help of my family, especially my wife, Kathy, who, without a doubt, is smarter and much more personable, but still tolerates me. I have the help of our daughters, Meggie and Betsy, who keep me grounded on a regular basis. And speaking of my family, I am really happy that my parents, Frank and Marian, could be here today.

I also enjoy the help of an experienced and committed Bar Association Staff and a superb incoming Chancellor-Elect Deb Gross and Board Chair Lauren McKenna.

Finally, I enjoy the support of all the Chancellors who are with me on this dais. I asked the Chancellors to join me as a way of acknowledging the efforts and sacrifices they made during their years of service to this Bar.

They established and maintained this Association as the preeminent voice for our profession. They protected the authority and discretion of our judges. And they promoted and supported the work of our public interest sector, which is comprised of the best and brightest anywhere. But despite these achievements, I'm concerned that we, as a profession, as an Association, have to do more, much more.

As my partner, Bill Pietragallo, always reminds me: "When you are satisfied with yesterday's success, you give up the promise of tomorrow."

Let's be honest with ourselves. We face challenges at every level. We face the challenge of fewer people choosing our profession. We face the disillusionment of young attorneys who lack jobs while burdened with debt. We face career burnout, with older, more experienced attorneys. We face the challenge of attracting, retaining, and advancing diverse attorneys. We face the economic challenges posed by the outsourcing of legal work and by the intense competition for business.

These are serious challenges… but I believe that the biggest threat to our profession, and to our Association, is the threat of complacency.

For example, while we were sleeping on the evening of November 23 into the morning of November 24, the Pennsylvania State Senate very nearly passed SB 76. SB 76 was a plan to eliminate property tax and to expand the scope of the states sales tax. It would have imposed a sales tax on legal services. Even though the Inquirer described the bill as "unrealistic and ill timed," it almost passed. The vote resulted in a 24 to 24 tie, that was only broken when Lieutenant Governor Stack, a member of this Association, voted against the bill.

But the vote was actually much closer because one senator, who likely would have voted for the bill, chose to return home for a fundraiser rather than vote.

So think about the impact of a potential tax on legal services. Think about the single working mother involved in a landlord tenant or consumer dispute who has to pay a 6, 7, 8 or 9 percent tax on her legal bill.

And if for some reason that situation doesn't concern you, then think about how a sales tax will make our firms uncompetitive nationally with firms who do not have to surcharge their clients.

The Inquirer also said that SB 76 should not have been taken seriously. But it was, because a vocal minority across the state pushed it. Dozens went to Senator's offices and placed flags on their doors as a show of support. These groups were well organized, they were passionate, and they demanded to be heard. In the end, 24 Senators heard them.

Of course, we opposed it. Al reacted quickly and rallied the troops. We activated our legislative action center. In the days leading up to the vote, we sent about 300 emails and it was barely enough. But we have to be vigilant as this issue is not going away. The supporters of a tax on legal services were there in person; the next time, we should be there in person. We have more than 12,000 members, but only 300 responded.

The first Tuesday in October, I go to an annual breakfast in the Poconos, organized and hosted by a friend. Typically, a thousand people are in their seats by 7:30 a.m. At the head table, you usually find the Governor, and leaders of the State Senate and House. This year, several of the judges running for appellate courts were there as well as candidates for Attorney General and other offices.

I am always impressed by the number of elected leaders who attend, so this year, I asked my friend how he attracts all of these dignitaries? His answer was simple. He said "do you know what you call 1000 people who travel to the Poconos at the crack of dawn for this breakfast? You call them "voters."

In this city, we are a political presence and an economic force. We have the ability to make a difference but we have to ask ourselves, do we have the will to make a difference?

Paraphrasing the Old Testament, Damon Runyon once said that the race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets. This Association historically has been swift and strong but we must redouble our efforts to protect our clients and our profession. To that end, I will intensify this Association's commitment to be out front and ahead of the curve to advocate on issues that impact us all.

We also have to be swift and strong about advocating for our judges. The media is consumed with negative stories about our judiciary and, many of those wounds, unfortunately, have been self-inflicted. But this preoccupation with judicial criticism misses the larger story. Our judges, overwhelmingly, are honorable and decent women and men of integrity. They work hard, not just to keep up with caseloads but to address the underlying human issues that bring people before them.

Thirty years ago, judges generally had one role - to call balls and strikes in the courtroom. Now, they serve as mentors, as civics teachers in our schools. They are the driving force in multiple programs to address the root causes of crime, and to assimilate offenders back into society. The judges and their staff are meeting important community needs in this City, but tell me, but where are the stories about this crucial work? Next year, we will tell those stories, because we can and because we should.

Next year, I also will ask the leaders of the Association to expand the work of our Judicial Commission to evaluate appellate court candidates. This city generates the greatest number of appellate cases, civil and criminal, in the state, yet we do not independently evaluate appellate court candidates. I fear that we may become complacent in allowing other organizations to make these critical decisions for us.

I also fear that we may become complacent in accepting the political gamesmanship that has compounded vacancies on our federal bench. There are 66 federal judicial vacancies nationwide. This past year has seen the highest number of vacancies, the highest number of judicial emergencies, and the lowest rate of confirmations, in decades. In this city, Judge Restrepo, has been nominated to the Third Circuit, and Judge John Younge has been nominated to the Eastern District. Both are experienced, well qualified judges. Judge Restrepo, who has been voted out of committee, deserves an up or down Senate vote. Judge Younge, who has his committee hearing tomorrow, deserves to have his nomination acted upon.

Finally, we cannot become complacent when it comes to the outstanding work of our public interest sector. These groups fill an immense void- the provision of legal services to those who can't afford it.

Yes, we have a vibrant, diverse, prosperous and dynamic city. But don't be fooled by the next construction crane. We are the poorest big city in America with the highest rate of deep poverty. People living in deep poverty lack reliable sources of food, of housing, and of childcare. Without those necessities, how can we possibly expect them to pay for an attorney? But into this justice gap, we have the public interest sector of this Association, we have our own Philadelphia Bar Foundation, and we have the legion of private attorneys and law firms who give so generously of their time and money to provide a basic human right.

Our legislature seems distracted with the easy things while important and substantive issues get weighed down in bureaucracy or political dysfunction. Our elected officials have dealt with everything from naming bridges… to live pigeon shoots… to honoring beekeepers. Yes, the House recently passed a resolution declaring a week in June as "Pollinator Week in Pennsylvania." Now I get that honey bees are important, but where is the resolution to provide broad based, essential legal services for the underprivileged? How can we call ourselves a nation of laws if we allow access to justice to turn on access to wealth. Next year this Association, if we accomplish nothing else, will draft and advance a bill to make civil Gideon the law of this Commonwealth. We cannot allow our elected officials to ignore civil Gideon, simply because they may view it as too expensive or too much work. These two excuses - we can't afford it or it is too difficult - always go hand in hand with complacency. We have to fight past those excuses because persistence in pursuing a fundamental right eventually pays off. If you don't believe me, then I urge you to read Judge Jones' extraordinary decision last year in Whitewood or Justice Kennedy's landmark opinion this past summer in Obergefell.

Philadelphia lawyers have never accepted the status quo. Help me continue to change it next year. Help me by taking three basic yet important steps.

First, maintain your membership, as dues are the lifeblood of the Association. Over the course of the next year, the Association will roll out additional programs to increase the value of your membership dollars without increasing your dues.

Second, support our CLE initiative. This Association has long been a prime mover in creating and presenting CLE programs. While we have seen the intellectual benefit, next year we will provide a financial benefit through "no cost" and "low cost" CLE programs.

Finally, and most importantly, please continue your tremendous efforts and generosity on behalf of our public interest sector. Public service has always been in the DNA of the Philadelphia lawyer. It is the essence of who we are.

As my former boss said 35 years ago, I'm really only good at one thing, and that's working. Support our Association in these three ways and I will work for you to make certain that Philadelphia lawyers will continue to deliver the promise of tomorrow to our members, to our clients, to the public, and to those who can least afford us, but need us the most.

Thank you.

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