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Helen Spigel Sax, 88, described by colleagues as a courageous pioneer for overcoming polio when she was a teenager to become the first female partner at Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen, died Sunday at her home in Albuquerque, N.M.

Mrs. Sax, the daughter of firm founder D. Hays Solis-Cohen, was born in North Philadelphia. She was inflicted with polio during her high school years and needed the aid of braces or crutches to walk, according to Wolf Block chairman Mark Alderman. She graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1933, Swarthmore College in 1937 and the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1940. Mrs. Sax joined Wolf Block as a partner in 1945 and worked full time until she retired from the partnership in 1998. She was affiliated with the firm until her death.

“She was a pioneer as a woman lawyer,” Alderman said. “Graduating from Penn Law in 1940, when virtually no women were going to law school, and then entering a profession that was very inhospitable to women, was pretty damned amazing. But what I think was even more heroic was how she overcame polio as a teenager and never let it slow her down.

“In addition, because of her father, she was basically an aristocrat at this firm, but she never acted like it. She was always very warm, friendly and accessible.”

Mrs. Sax practiced in the area of estate planning at Wolf Block for more than 50 years. According to Clifford Schlesinger, chairman of Wolf Block’s private client services group, her clients included the founders of the Rosenbach Museum & Library, for which she served as a longtime trustee. According to Mrs. Sax’s biography on the Wolf Block Web site, her clients included David Riesman, professor emeritus at Harvard University, renowned sociologist and author of The Lonely Crowd.

“She was a very practical lawyer who prided herself in being ethical and a sounding-board to both her clients and other lawyers,” Schlesinger said. “When she retired, I took over her clients, and every single one of them had a tremendous level of professional respect and personal affection for her. She was a very smart lawyer with a very big heart.”

Wolf Block partners Diana Liu and Dana Klinges said that Mrs. Sax served as a mentor to generations of women lawyers who have passed through Wolf Block’s doors in the past 59 years. Both recalled attending annual luncheons hosted by Mrs. Sax at the Acorn Club for the firm’s women lawyers.

“She really cared about the development of women lawyers and wanted to make sure they progressed through the firm and had a strong rapport with one another,” Liu said. “I joined the firm in 1988 as a lateral, and I didn’t know anybody, so it was a great way for me to get to know people, and she was always so approachable and friendly. She had the carriage, demeanor and elegance of an aristocrat but not the snobbery of an aristocrat.

“I remember the invitations were always handwritten, and she checked to see if you were coming. Not by sending e-mails like people do today. It was like something from another time or place, where things like manners, elegance and professionalism were of the utmost importance. People always attended out of respect for her. She was a role model for women because of all she had to overcome to become a lawyer and then succeed as one.”

Klinges said she remembers the luncheons with fondness and, as one of the more senior women at the firm, has thought about reinstituting them.

Outside the firm, Mrs. Sax served as president of the Girl Scouts of Greater Philadelphia, now the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and was a board member for the organization for several years. She was also a board member of the Big Brother/Big Sister Association of Philadelphia, the Federation of Jewish Agencies and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Mrs. Sax’s first husband, Herbert Spigel, died in 1951. She married James Sax in 1969, and the couple lived in Center City before moving to Albuquerque four years ago. In addition to her husband, Mrs. Sax is survived by three sons and five grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 6, at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, 6410 N. Broad St., Philadelphia. Burial will be in Mount Sinai Cemetery at Bridge and Cottage streets.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Box 27540, Philadelphia, Pa., 19118.

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