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Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua: A Personal Profile

by Peter Vaira

Winter 2004, Vol. 66, No. 4

On January 1, 2004, Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua will become the seventy-seventh Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. A naturalized citizen who came to this country at the age of 7, the son of a stonemason, Gabe has worked hard to get the job. He came up through the Bar Association and served for twenty years in four elected posts. This was his second try for Chancellor. He ran in 2000 and lost. It was a long way up, and now he is ready for the challenges ahead.

Gabe’s father brought his family from Abruzzo, Italy, in 1955 and settled in Philadelphia on Sigel Street. Gabe attended St. Edmond School and Bishop Neumann High School (now Saint John Neumann High School). At Bishop Neumann, a Norbertine priest, Father Tom Meulemans, ignited an interest in Gabe for forensics—public speaking and debating. For the Italian kid with an old-country accent, it was a challenge. The interest in forensics changed Gabe’s life, starting him on a career in law and in the Bar. Gabe admits he was rough around the edges. He joined the forensics society, worked on his speech pattern and lost his accent.

In 1963, he was a competitor in the National Catholic Forensic League national tournament held in Denver. It introduced Gabe to the world outside of South Philadelphia. He took his first airplane ride. He competed against strangers with different styles and different accents. He ordered a cheesesteak from room service and was surprised to learn that in Colorado a cheesesteak is a porterhouse with melted cheese on top. The world outside Sigel Street was exciting, but challenging.

The next year he competed in the Liberty Bell Tournament, a national debate competition at the University of Pennsylvania. During that competition he noticed among the many competitors a tall and slender brunette. The image of her that day has returned to his mind’s eye many times over the years. The brunette was Phyllis Brady, the daughter of a police officer from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Gabe was 16, Phyllis was 14. Italians would say she had “the magic.”

Over the next eight years they kept in touch. Gabe attended Saint Joseph’s College (now University); Phyllis attended Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), studying for a four-year degree in nursing. They communicated by letter once a week and traveled to meet for important social events. Old-fashioned, maybe, but the magic remained. After eight years of long-distance courtship—and during Gabe’s second year at Temple Law School and while Phyllis was employed at the Rush Rehabilitation Center at NYU—they were married and Phyllis finally moved to Philadelphia. They are still married with two children, Gabe Jr. and Patrick. Phyllis is now the school nurse at the Joseph J. Greenberg School, a Philadelphia primary school. Gabe Jr., 27, is a graduate of Princeton University and is working on an MBA at Columbia University. Patrick, 23, is a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and is working toward a master’s degree in film and video production at American University.

Gabe’s first job after law school was as an assistant city solicitor. He worked in that office from 1973 to 1984. In six years he worked his way to chief assistant for major trials in the claims division. Then-Mayor Bill Green appointed Alan Davis as city solicitor. Alan Davis promoted Gabe in rapid succession to divisional deputy for claims and then to chair of the litigation department.

Gabe praises government service. He believes there are no limits for young lawyers in the solicitor’s office. “There is a great opportunity for responsibility that one may never obtain in private practice,” he said. He urges young lawyers to consider a career or at least a stint in government service. Gabe recognizes the importance of lawyers in the public sector, and he says he will devote a great deal of his time while Chancellor to serving their needs.

In 1984, Gabe joined the law firm of Saul Ewing. Henry Ruth, the chair of the litigation department, was a prime guiding force for Gabe in his first years in the firm. Joe Ewing, a partner, introduced him to clients in the health care field and Gabe gravitated to that area. He became the general counsel of Nazareth Hospital. Eventually he began to represent medical specialty certification boards, an area where he now concentrates his practice on a national level. He represents the boards in litigation against doctors who improperly advertise that they are board certified, and he defends the boards in suits by doctors who contend they were unfairly denied certification.

Gabe credits his interest in Bar Association matters to the encouragement of J. Clayton Undercofler, the managing partner of Saul Ewing at the time. Undercofler urged him to become more involved with the Bar Association and to seek office in the organization. “It was good advice,” said Gabe. He ran for a seat on the Board of Governors and later was elected as Assistant Treasurer and Treasurer. He then became President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.

In 2000, Gabe ran for Chancellor and lost. He said, “Unlike others who ran and lost and did not try again, I set about a second campaign the very next year.” The loss was a sobering experience to one who was always successful in his campaigns. He resolved to work even harder at his second try. The loss taught him that he had to focus on those people who did not vote for him the first time, and it taught him that he needed to be perceived as a prizefighter who could get off the canvas and come back punching. “I’m not sure that many of the successful unopposed candidates in the past could have handled a loss and come back,” he said.

Gabe makes a number of points about what he learned from campaigning twice for Chancellor. He said, “It’s difficult to tell the position of one candidate from another; we all have very similar programs. The object is to convey to the membership that you are capable and can handle any problem that arises.” Going through large law firms to meet the attorneys is a sobering experience. The attorneys do not have much time to talk to candidates. Gabe felt that he and the other candidates barely registered on the lawyers’ radar screens. It was his job to grab their attention and convey his competence. Gabe’s toughest audience was the Young Lawyers Division. Although that group eventually endorsed him, he felt he did not make much of an impression when he appeared before them.

Gabe’s resolution, after losing once, is to represent everyone, especially the Bar members who did not support him. “This is not old-time politics, where you take care of your friends. I am looking out for all segments of the Bar.”

Gabe is proud of his Italian heritage, as revealed by his active role in several Italian-American organizations. He is, however, very critical of ethnic promotion to the exclusion of quality lawyering. “I will work very hard to avoid ethnic clashes in the Bar Association. It does not benefit any group to become so involved in its ethnic or racial promotion that it loses credibility with the rest of the Bar.” At the Bar Association retreat in January in New Jersey, Gabe will distribute to each member of the Board of Governors, Section and Committee Chairs a copy of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. He refers to the book as “a call to arms against racism.” He has little time for ethnic stereotyping, such as that seen on the HBO television series “The Sopranos.” In his view “it glorifies a very narrow segment of the Italian-American population that promotes violence and breaking the law.”

He is very eager to get started on his program for the Bar. Among his many goals are these three items:
  • A permanent business court for the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court;
  • A revitalization of the Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention; and
  • The creation of a Civil Litigation Section in the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Gabe is strongly in favor of creating a full-scale business court in the First Judicial District modeled on the Delaware Chancery Court. The present Commerce Case Management Program is a great beginning but it is merely a case assignment program. Gabe envisions a separate court with specially selected judges, a court with an expanded venue with refined discovery and pre-trial motion procedures. The object is to encourage business litigators to bring their cases to Philadelphia. Gabe will create a special task force consisting of judges, attorneys and business leaders to formulate a realistic plan. “Attorneys and business leaders want to avoid the current litigation roulette. They are seeking a forum where they know they will get a fair and quick hearing.”

A second goal is to revitalize the Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention. A task force has been formed and is waiting to be put into motion. Gabe believes the commission must complete its findings on new candidates by January of the year of election, otherwise the political parties will ignore the commission’s recommendations in endorsing candidates. He hopes to obtain from both political parties a commitment that they will not endorse candidates found “Not Recommended” by the Bar. He also believes that the task force should revisit the standards used by the commission in evaluating candidates.

He said the commission should evaluate sitting judges more often than once every ten years. “Ten years is too long. Attorneys know very quickly whether a judge is performing well.” Gabe thinks more should be done with the results of the investigations of sitting judges. For example, serious infractions of judicial conduct should be made public and referred to appropriate authorities.

Finally, Gabe believes that the Philadelphia Bar needs a Civil Litigation Section similar to the Probate, Criminal Law, Tax and other Sections. At present there are many committees serving the needs of the civil litigator, but no overall group overseeing the efforts. The work of all civil litigation committees would be coordinated in the Civil Litigation Section. These are examples of the tough assignments Gabe has given himself. His complete agenda will be the subject of an article by Daniel A. Cirucci in the next issue of The Philadelphia Lawyer.

Gabe Bevilacqua has been preparing for this role for several years. He started right after he lost his first bid for Chancellor.

In his words, “There is a big world outside of Sigel Street.”