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Seymour Kurland, 88, Philadelphia lawyer and bar association chancellor

To Mr. Kurland, ethics in public life were important. He spoke out strongly in 1986 when judges were accused of accepting cash gifts.

Seymour Kurland and his wife, Shirley, standing on the the deck of their penthouse in Old City in 2015.
Seymour Kurland and his wife, Shirley, standing on the the deck of their penthouse in Old City in 2015.Read moreFILE PHOTO / Clem Murray

Seymour Kurland, 88, of Philadelphia, a lawyer in the city for six decades and a former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, died Friday, Nov. 23, of respiratory failure at his home.

Mr. Kurland contributed to the legal community, the judicial system, and younger lawyers whom he mentored.

"Seymour Kurland was a distinguished leader in our legal community and a powerful advocate in the field of class actions and complex commercial litigation who won many notable cases," said Mary F. Platt, current chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. "He was a cherished and respected mentor and friend to many attorneys who looked to him for practical advice and guidance."

He began his career at Wolf Block after graduating at the top of his class at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Even as a young associate, he was persuasive. In one case, he wrote a petition for the losing party in a case, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision of a lower court. The petition was accepted, his family said.

Later in his career, Mr. Kurland helped revolutionize antitrust law as lead counsel in several important cases nationwide. He also was at the forefront of cutting-edge jurisprudence on class-action procedures. He helped write Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs class-action lawsuits.

Mr. Kurland was the first lawyer in a large law firm in Philadelphia to represent plaintiffs in antitrust class actions, his family said, and he built a department of litigators at Wolf Block that became nationally recognized.

He was a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a founding member of the Historical Society of the United States Courts for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In 1987, he was chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

"As chancellor, Sy believed strongly in the responsibility of lawyers to serve the common good of the citizens of Philadelphia," his family said. "He never dodged the tough call."

In 1986, when nine Common Pleas Court judges told FBI investigators that they had taken cash gifts of $300 or more from leaders of Roofers Union Local 30-30B the previous year, Mr. Kurland was critical.

"The appearance of a judge taking cash gifts is improper. They are people charged with ensuring the integrity of our justice system," he told the New York Times.

In 1988, Mr. Kurland was recruited by then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode to serve as Philadelphia's city solicitor. He held the job until 1990.

"He was not afraid to challenge government officials," his family said, "and his ethical standards were the lodestar for the rest of his [staff]." He even turned down free season tickets from the Phillies when others in that role had accepted them.

Following his term as city solicitor, Mr. Kurland joined the Center City law firm of Dechert LLP for several years before retiring in June 1999.

At a 2008 Philadelphia Bar Association ceremony marking his 50 years as a lawyer, Mr. Kurland spoke of a half-century of change.

"When I graduated, I was sent to Wolf Block, because that's where the Jewish boys were," he told the Bar Association magazine. "[Federal Judge] A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. [an African American] couldn't even get an interview with a big firm. And the women in my class, none of them could expect to become partners. I don't remember any Hispanic lawyers from that time. But all of that has now changed."

In retirement, Mr. Kurland was tapped as a special master by U.S. District Judge Norma L. Shapiro to conduct hearings in a case filed by tenants alleging poor conditions in buildings administered by the Chester Housing Authority in the late 1980s.

The buildings were seized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1991. Due to the litigation, conditions improved. There has been a waiting list for the units over the last decade, the Delaware County News Network wrote on April 25.

"Sy drew upon his humanity and sense of justice in administering these disputes and made a substantial difference in the lives of the residents," his family said.

Mr. Kurland loved travel and adventure. At age 48, he completed Outward Bound wilderness training. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and ran with the bulls in Pamplona.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Shirley Levin Kurland; children Amy Kurland, Laura Ferenci, and Daniel Kurland; a brother and sister; and nine grandchildren. A sister, and a son, Frederick Kurland, died earlier.

Services were Sunday, Nov. 25.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Ruth Cohen Fund, c/o Jewish Family and Children's Services of Greater Philadelphia, 2100 Arch St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.