n. A lawyer with an excellent ability to exploit legal technicalities
I chose this post as homage to my weekend vacation in the City of Brotherly Love, and also to a nickname that my parents used for me when I was young. It seems to be a phrase that has fallen out of use; at least I have never heard anyone in my generation use the term. While in Philly this weekend, I found myself wondering about its origins, and they were relatively easy enough to find.
First, the term dates back to the Early Republic period and was used as a complement. To call someone a Philadelphia Lawyer meant that he had an outstanding grasp of the law. The prototype for the term dates back even earlier to an Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton, a lawyer from Philadelpha, earned his spot in history for defending John Peter Zenger in the famous free press trial of 1735. Zenger, the owner of the New York Weekly Journal had been arrested for printing a document critical of the colonial govornor William Cosby. The brilliance of Hamilton’s defence, my wife will tell you, was not that we pleaded his clients innocence, but that he attacked the law. Zenger couldn’t have committed seditious libel, Zenger argued, because basically everything in the article was true. The twelve man jury, handpicked by the governor, found Zenger not guilty, and Hamilton’s fame was secured.
Somewhere along the line, the term picked up negative connotations (although none of the major dictionaries carry them). To call someone a Philadelphia lawyer now seems to imply that a person will use the technicalities of the law to violate the spirit, an intelligent but slippery fellow. Merriam-Webster suggests that this turn came hand-in-hand with the public’s general distrust of lawyers, but distrusting lawyers seems to be as old as the profession itself.