Segal was the first Jewish president of the ABA and a champion of civil rights.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once called Bernard G. Segal W’28, L’31, Hon’69 “the lodestar of our profession.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan observed, “Bernie has touched our profession with greatness,” and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “Bernie represents the highest and best ideals of the legal profession.”
Segal earned his undergraduate degree at the Wharton School and taught political science there while earning his law degree. His first job out of law school was serving as deputy to William Schnader, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, making him the state’s youngest Deputy Attorney General in history. When Schnader went into private practice, Segal followed and quickly became a partner of the firm now known as Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis.
A talented corporate lawyer, Segal argued nearly 50 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He made such an impression on colleagues that he became the first Jewish lawyer elected chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Segal used his prominent position to advocate for those who needed quality counsel most; in 1953, he organized the defense of nine Philadelphians denounced as Communists, insisting that even the most despised defendants deserve a defense.
In 1969, Segal became the first Jewish president of the American Bar Association (ABA). He campaigned for the merit selection of judges, creating the ABA system for reviewing candidates nominated to the bench. According to lore, he persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to establish the practice of submitting prospective judicial appointments to association review by appealing to the president’s military background. “Would you appoint a general,” he asked Eisenhower, “without asking the colonels what they thought of him?” The practice continues to this day.
Segal was also deeply committed to civil rights. In 1963, he called Attorney General Robert Kennedy and asked why the President was not deploying lawyers to help advance the civil rights movement. President Kennedy soon thereafter established the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a convening of 244 prominent lawyers suggested by Segal, with Segal serving as co-chairman. The Committee marshalled the resources of the private bar by sending lawyers to defend civil rights workers in southern states and provided pro bono legal assistance to victims of discrimination.
“When the high court of history writes its judgment in praise of Bernard G. Segal,” said the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, it will speak of “his indefatigable efforts to expand and improve legal services for the poor, the powerless, and the dispossessed. It will note his mighty role in pushing the organized bar and many individual lawyers to accept the eradication of barriers of racial discrimination and religious bigotry as part of their mission.”
With the support of the Schnader firm, the Law School named its flexible teaching space (S-245A) in Silverman Hall after Segal, and this portrait hangs near the room in his honor and memory.