In July 1993, when I joined The Legal Intelligencer, the economy was still recovering from a recession, health care and gay rights were divisive issues and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was embroiled in controversy, as the justices were at each other’s throats and one of them was about to face criminal charges.
Whoever said history repeats itself wasn’t kidding. Sometimes covering the law in Pennsylvania can feel like Groundhog Day.
But despite the continued tendency of the state’s highest court to shoot itself in the foot, much has changed in the last 20 years, and considerably more in the history of the oldest daily legal newspaper in the United States.
When we did magazines for our 150th and 160th anniversaries, the editors-in-chief at the time did recaps of The Legal‘s full history. That’s sort of what I was expected to do.
I don’t think I can improve upon the history lessons written by two of my predecessors, Brian Harris and Tracy Blitz Newman (although I will shamelessly crib from them), and as respectful as I am of tradition, I’m also fond of breaking it. So I’ve decided to focus more on the remarkable changes The Legal has undergone over the last 20 years.
An Eventful Two Decades
The past 20 years have been a figurative gold mine for legal journalists in Pennsylvania. There’s been no shortage of big stories and controversies. Starting in the early 1990s, there were a number of high-profile discrimination suits against prominent law firms, including the "Scott Doe" case that many saw as the inspiration for the movie Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen was at odds with his fellow justices and wound up making a bunch of allegations against them. It resulted in a grand jury probe. The result of the probe, however, wasn’t what Larsen expected. The probe’s findings led to his impeachment, removal from office and, later, a criminal conviction.
Borrowing from Billy Joel’s "We Didn’t Start the Fire," here are some word associations for big events over the last 20 years: Larsen, Ezold, Glanton, impeachment, Day Forward, Day Backward, Avellino, merit selection, certificate of merit, pay-raise fiasco, Cappy, Nigro, Newman, rising first-year associate salaries, law firm merger mania, Bonusgate, Luzerne County, Conahan, Ciavarella, Powell, kids-for-cash, Wolf Block, Great Recession, layoffs, priest sex-abuse scandal, family court, traffic court, Orie Melvin.
OK, it doesn’t rhyme, but you get the point. Sandwiched between two Supreme Court justices being convicted and removed from the bench was an awful lot of change in Pennsylvania’s legal landscape.
Over the last 20 years, the legal profession turned into an industry. First-year associates at some big firms went from making $60,000 to $145,000 … then they got laid off in droves. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court instituted new rules aimed at reforming medical practice cases. Philadelphia’s civil court system, once a nightmare, eventually became a model of efficiency.
In the last 20 years, the makeup of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was often in flux. It often had to operate without a full complement of justices. During that time, two justices stepped down and three were booted from the court — one was kicked out in a retention vote, the other two convicted of criminal charges. Firms that were once seen as pillars of the legal establishment imploded.
Since 1993, we’ve had five publishers: Richard H. Groves, Jane Seagrave, Margie Weiner, John Mason and our current publisher, Hal Cohen. We’ve also had four editors-in-chief.
Over the course of The Legal‘s 170-year history, we’ve tried to keep pace with events and get you the information you need, always keeping in mind two of our internal mottos: "Improve or die" and "the status quo is not an option."
Thinking Broader, Working Harder
Boasts aside, what I think you’ll find is that in an age when so many news operations have cut back, become superficial or flat-out lost their edge, The Legal has invested more time and resources over the years and gotten more aggressive in covering the news affecting the Pennsylvania legal community.
Despite being founded in 1843, it wasn’t until 1988 that the paper started regularly publishing articles by journalists. Prior to 2005, The Legal had won a handful of journalism awards. Since 2005, The Legal and its sibling publications, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, Delaware Business Court Insider and Delaware Law Weekly, have won in the neighborhood of 43 awards.
We’ve also been cited by others for our aggressive reporting, including the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice in its final report.
Many of those awards have been for investigative reporting, beat reporting and enterprise series, all of which demonstrates that we’ve worked really hard to know, understand and reveal what’s going on in the legal community and tried to expose problems and offer up solutions.
Back in 1993, The Legal mainly covered what was going on in Philadelphia. Now, the paper aggressively covers the entire state. That statement has been proven true numerous times, whether we were breaking news of a merger between Pittsburgh firms, covering the Jerry Sandusky trial in Centre County or exposing judicial corruption in Luzerne County.
We’ve made those efforts in direct response to feedback and suggestions we’ve gotten from our readers and the community over the years. In our mind, it’s the job of a newspaper to not only cover a community, but be responsive to its needs and concerns.
It used to be in the news business that things happened one day and you reported what happened the next. In the digital age, a number of news organizations have struggled to adapt. We’ve certainly had our stumbles and missteps as well — in retrospect, some website redesigns resembled the electronic equivalent of bad plaid fashions from the 1970s or the outfield of a minor league baseball stadium — but we learned pretty quickly that only telling people what happened the day before isn’t good enough.
Since our 160th anniversary, there’s been a real emphasis on covering the whole state and doing investigative and enterprise reporting. Rather than just telling readers what happened the day before, it’s about trying to identify what is happening now and what could happen down the road.
It’s about trying to identify problems and offer solutions. That requires reaching out and talking to a lot of people. One irony for us is that as the Digital Age has evolved, it has only increased our low-tech interactions, like meeting people in person and talking on the phone. Why? In the old days, you might scour through court opinions and filings and largely have your story. Now, more and more of our reporting isn’t just the result of combing through documents, but is instead built upon intelligence gathering — developing and talking to sources.
Rather than seeing the digital sphere as a threat, we view it as an opportunity to reach more readers and to allow us to compete against bigger news operations. Of course, all of these technological innovations weren’t even remotely on anyone’s mind at The Legal‘s birth.
How It All Began
The Legal was founded in 1843 by Henry Wallace, a Philadelphia lawyer who had been practicing since 1836 and had already established the Pennsylvania Law Journal in 1842.
Wallace, as Harris wrote in 1993, had "a dream — to provide his fellow practitioners with current information on judicial and legal activities, and especially news of the auditors’ meeting through which much of the routine administration of the law was then conducted."
Responding to a proclamation from the District Court for City and County of Philadelphia on November 25, 1843, to publish and circulate court notices and sheriff’s sales to members of the bar, Wallace created The Legal, initially setting up a weekly publication schedule on Saturdays for the newspaper. The first issue rolled off the presses on December 2, 1843, from the paper’s first office at 177 Race St.
"Intended as a medium for the publication of all legal notices," the introduction to the first issue said, The Legal was designed "to remove an inconvenience, which from the want of such a paper, has long been felt by the bar and suitors."
Wallace maintained control of the paper for about three years, during which time the publication date changed from Thursdays to Wednesdays and then, for the next 85 years, to Fridays.
In 1845, Wallace had a co-publisher, David Webster, but a year later Webster was replaced by James H. Robbins. Wallace continued to edit the paper until his death on February 23, 1879.
Over the next several decades, The Legal went through numerous leadership and office changes. The paper expanded beyond court notices and sheriff’s sales to include trial and court listings, texts of bills introduced in the state legislature, state court argument lists, full-text opinions and condensed digests of important decisions. Many of these elements still survive today.
The Legal went through a major change in 1933, when it became a daily paper. During the 1930s, an important influence began to make his mark on the paper: Walter E. Rauffenbart, whose father was treasurer and general manager at the paper. Under his direction, the paper’s businesses extended to court rules and wider coverage of court opinions for the statewide District & County Reports, a publication The Legal started producing in 1892 and continues to put out to this day.
Rauffenbart also worked closely with the Philadelphia Bar Association and helped originate the Shingle in 1937. He stayed with the paper until retiring from active management in 1977.
Another longtime member of The Legal‘s staff was Ida M. Hess, who started at the paper as a secretary in 1933 and eventually worked her way up to managing editor, a position she held for 20 years. She retired in 1978, but consulted with the paper until her death.
Packard Press acquired The Legal and its publications in the early 1970s. According to Harris, "When the city’s two daily newspapers went on strike in 1985, The Legal printed a daily four-page supplement providing general news of the day, business news and even TV listings."
It was in 1988 that the paper hired additional staff reporters and news services, looking to broaden the newspaper’s coverage. The following year, The Legal and its sibling publications were sold to Legal Communications Ltd. Less than a decade later, Legal Communications was acquired by ALM, the current owner.
It’s All About the People
During our history, we’ve always been mindful that we serve a large and diverse community of lawyers, judges and legal professionals. We’ve tried our best to meet our readers’ needs, whether they’re litigators, business attorneys, family lawyers, trial judges, appellate judges, marketers, paralegals or any other member of the legal community.
To that end, we wouldn’t be able to produce The Legal and win all those awards if we didn’t have a great staff. Though we’ve had dozens of people come and go over the years, one constant has always been the quality of the people in our office.
I tell people all the time that I’m a lucky man, because I love my job and I have a kick-ass staff that’s a joy to work with. They’re smart, dedicated, hard-working, team-oriented and passionate about putting out a great paper every day.
We’ve got a mix of veterans and newer employees and they all do a great job. As with any institution, our office also has a core group of people who have been with the paper for quite a bit of time. Our IT director, Brian Harris, has been here for 29 years; legal notices coordinator Stephanie Murray, 27 years; office manager Jennifer McCullough, 20 years; I’m a 20-year vet; IT assistant David Kramer, 20 years; managing editor Michael Riccardi, 19 years; assistant listings editor Diane DeAngelo, 15 years; accountant Patricia Crowell, 15 years; and Chief Financial Officer Thomas Fiegel, 12 years.
Of course, The Legal would not have survived for 170 years without the most important resource a newspaper can have: our audience. No matter what changes we’ve endured or the legal profession has undergone, we’ve always been proud to consider the Pennsylvania legal community our own and to have you as our dedicated readers all these years. I speak for all of us at The Legal when I say thanks for reading.