Only A Philadelphia Lawyer Could Have Done It: How Philadelphia Lawyers Got Their Name

I am proud to be a “Philadelphia Lawyer.” This term, Philadelphia lawyer, has always been synonymous with a cunning or shrewd lawyer, a super lawyer, who is able to use the technicalities of the law in his or her favor. But the origin of the term, Philadelphia Lawyer, pre-dates the founding of this country. The term was originally applied to Andrew Hamilton who obtained the acquittal of a German printer by the name of John Peter Zenger. Zenger was being tried on the charge of publishing “seditious libels” or treasonable defamation in New York in 1735. No one wanted to take Zenger’s case. Zenger could not find one New York lawyer to defend him. But Hamilton did agree to take the case and in New York his argument to the jury on behalf of Zenger was spellbinding. Hamilton conceded that Zenger had printed libels about Royalist governor William Cosby. But in his closing argument, Hamilton argued that the law as it stood was both immoral and wrongly applied and ought to be nullified by the jury. He told the jury that their verdict was more than whether Zenger was guilty, but rather was about freedom of exposing and opposing power and government by speaking and writing the truth. In short, 41 years before the Declaration of Independence and 50 years before the Constitution, Hamilton argued for the First Amendment and freedom on the press. Zenger was acquitted. It was said that when the jury returned its verdict those in the galleries exclaimed: “Only a Philadelphia lawyer could have done it!” As noted by the Philadelphia Bar Association web site, “Ever since then the term “Philadelphia lawyer” has come to characterize a particularly adept lawyer: more clever; craftier; a lawyer who will find a way to prevail for his/her client.