New Chancellor Aims To Steer Bar Association Through Tough Times

Personal-injury lawyer John Savoth is set to take over as chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association at a time of ongoing ferment in the profession and uncertainty and debate over prospects for a full recovery from the downturn that began in 2007.

Savoth will make his inaugural address at the association’s annual luncheon Tuesday, although his term does not officially begin until Jan. 1. The legal industry has recovered a bit since the wave of layoffs in 2008 – indeed, profits at many firms are healthier than ever, and compensation for partners is often in the millions.

But hiring is anemic, young law school graduates face stiff odds in finding a position, and some law-firm leaders maintain it is unthinkable that hiring ever will return to the robust levels of earlier years.

This climate has had an impact on the association itself, the oldest bar group in the country. The number of full-paying dues members has declined roughly 7 percent since 2008, when a wave of layoffs swept through firms in Philadelphia and around the country.

The association membership has remained flat at around 12,500 nonetheless, a consequence of offering free or discounted memberships to both younger and more senior lawyers, a spokesman for the association said.

Against that backdrop, Savoth is a passionate advocate for the association.

“I think it is important that there is a group that analyzes issues that are important to the access to justice,” he said. “It is really vital.”

Savoth, 51, a fervent Bruce Springsteen fan, is of counsel with the Center City-based plaintiffs firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi & Bendesky P.C., and practices as part of the firm’s construction-accident team.

A graduate of Dickinson College and Widener University Law School, he resides in Swarthmore with his wife and three sons.

In an effort to boost membership this year, Savoth worked with outgoing chancellor Rudy Garcia on a free legal database provided to firms that paid membership fees for all of their attorneys.

Savoth says that program will continue, and in a further nod to both the tough economic climate and the bar association’s ongoing need to boost membership, he plans to announce Tuesday a plan for discounted advertising rates on the association’s website for members.

In another initiative, Savoth says he plans a new program to provide pro bono legal services to armed services veterans, thousands of whom will be returning home with the drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Savoth says the bar association will set up a hotline for returning vets, who will then be matched up with volunteer lawyers. The lawyers will represent them in bankruptcy, consumer credit, veterans benefits, employment and other matters.

Savoth says one of the challenges facing the bar association is demonstrating to the city’s legal community that it is central to the practice of their profession. Firms have cut staff and lawyers and are always looking for ways to reduce expenses. Annual bar association dues, which can range as high as $383, are an obvious place to look.

“I am constantly trying to think through how do we remain relevant,” he said.

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