Chester County Leadership: William J. Gallagher, Partner, MacElree Harvey
William J. Gallagher, the last founding partner of MacElree Harvey who is still involved with the firm, recently sat down with VISTA Today. He discussed his fond memories of growing up in Northeast Philadelphia at a time when children could freely roam the neighborhood without the fears that kids have today.
Gallagher also shared how he launched his legal career with back-to-back acquittals in a pair of high-profile murder trials. Now, several years later, he focuses his practice on general litigation, trusts and estates and family law matters.
Mr. Gallagher enjoys helping people through the practice and currently serves as president of the Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing free legal services to low income people, victims of domestic abuse and the elderly.
Where did you grow up, Bill?
I was born in 1938, the oldest of four kids, and grew up in the Oxford Circle area of Northeast Philadelphia. My dad was a union painter and my mother a housewife.
What memories do you have of growing up in the Northeast?
Growing up in Philadelphia back then was great! My parents were both very busy, so I had a lot of freedom. Nobody was worried about what might happen to a kid playing in the neighborhood. I remember hitchhiking to and from a local pool with a bunch of my friends when I was nine or ten years old. The group of us would get in the back of dump trucks, and no one was worried.
Did you play any sports?
I made the JV football team at North Catholic High School but couldn’t break into the Varsity team. I wanted to be a quarterback but switched to center when I saw there were 100 kids trying out for that position. Later on, I rowed in college.
Did you enjoy rowing?
I did! Even though my JV team won the Dad Vail Regatta, I never made LaSalle’s Varsity team. Instead, I agreed to stay on as the team’s only substitute and ended up rowing on LaSalle’s Varsity crew at the Dad Vail Regatta my senior year. To this day, some of my best friends are people I rowed with.
What kind of jobs did you have in high school?
When I was 14 or 15, I delivered the Evening Bulletin in my neighborhood, eventually becoming the branch captain. The branch captain was responsible for approximately twenty newspaper delivery boys.
Being made branch captain was a big deal back then. What did the Bulletin management see in you?
Who knows, maybe because I was still there, I hadn’t quit yet! Seriously, I think they saw I was organized, I understood the business of running a branch and I didn’t antagonize people.
Where did you get your easy going style and organizational skills?
I’m not sure. It was something that just came along as time progressed. One thing led to another and then another. Those skills developed further when I was in the Marines.
How did you end up in the Marines?
Several members of my family had been in the Marines. I enlisted in 1961, while I was in law school, but did not enter active duty until 1964. I figured I would get good experience, quickly, which is what I got.
I didn’t start full-time service until 1964, just as Vietnam was starting to heat up. The Marines sent me to the Dominican Republic where we were fighting a Communist insurgency. By the time I got back, I didn’t have enough time left on my enlistment period to be sent to Southeast Asia.
Let’s go back a bit. Where did you go to college, Bill?
Nearly all the kids on my block went to either LaSalle or Temple. Both schools were close to home and easy to get to. I went to LaSalle and majored in Political Science. LaSalle, at that point, was incredibly inexpensive costing me just $225 per semester to attend. My summer job, plus a small part-time job during the school year, gave me all the money I needed to pay for school and living expenses.
When did the idea of becoming a lawyer come to you?
John Kennedy was elected president during my senior year in college. In fact, he spoke at LaSalle during his 1960 campaign. I thought I wanted to be in politics and knew I had to find a way to make a living while running for office. Being a lawyer was the perfect way to fund my political aspirations.
What about politics interested you?
I liked the thought of helping people, which naturally led to politics.
Where did you go to law school?
I was accepted at both Penn and Villanova. Because Villanova was a lot less money, I went there.
How did you get to Chester County?
I knew I didn’t want to practice law or raise my family in Philadelphia, so I started to look outside the city. Friends of my parents knew a paralegal in Kennett Square who worked for a lawyer named John Hoffman who had just died. Hoffman’s widow was looking around for someone to take over her late husband’s practice. In January of 1964, I was married, had one child, owned a car and had $2,000 in my bank account when I acquired Hoffman’s practice and started practicing law.
Did the practice flourish?
After I acquired the practice, I eventually became the Public Defender of Chester County, and very quickly won back-to-back acquittals in two high profile major murder trials. The two acquittals established my reputation.
Aside from the high-profile acquittals, what other breaks happened along the way?
While I still have my original Kennett Square office, after the acquittals I wanted a practice in West Chester. A lawyer by the name of Sam Lichtenfeld wanted to retire and asked me to take over his West Chester practice. I won a large condemnation case, further cementing my reputation as a good lawyer.
What were you bringing to the law that allowed you to win these high profile cases?
First, I have a good feel and a sense of how to effectively cross-examine people. Second, I know how to organize a case. Finally, I work hard; No one in this county has ever outworked me, ever.
How did the MacElree Harvey firm come into existence?
Once I won the land case with Sam, we were off and running. Eventually, Mike Kean and Larry O’Donnell, a lawyer with a Masters in Tax Law, joined us. The partners at the MacElree firm needed proven young lawyers like us to do the work. In 1972 we merged the MacElree firm with Lichtenfeld and Gallagher, which is what our firm was called, and launched MacElree Harvey.
What priorities and opportunities are you focused on this year?
My focus this year is a little less on the law firm and more on charitable causes. I am on the Board of Directors of the Chester County Community Foundation, and I am president of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
You could be doing anything, Bill. Why the focus on legal aid?
I enjoy helping people through the practice of law. For many years, I have provided pro bono legal services.
And what charitable causes get your attention?
The Chester County Community Foundation is the other half of my mission to use my talents to help people. Where Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania is out on the street doing work for people that needs to be done, the Foundation provides money to non-profits across the county and the region.
What about away from the office, where do you spend your time?
I read vociferously. I tried golf but wasn’t any good at it. I can’t play tennis or squash anymore, because I have two new knees. Adrienne, my wife of 52 years, and I travel quite a bit. Plus, I have four children, seven grandchildren and soon to have an eighth. I also get down to three or four Phillies games a year.
What is the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
Even though I give advice for a living, I seldom pay attention to the advice I’m given. My parents set a great example for me. Both did well in what they did and were very successful, my mother as a housewife and mother, my father a successful union painter. They showed me the importance of hard work and personal integrity.
While we all fail at times, if you work hard and are honest over a lifetime, things will work out. They have for me. I’ve been very blessed, lucky, whatever you want to say it is.
The firm has grown to 36 attorneys today. What does the firm offer clients today as a large firm with many attorneys that it didn’t back in 1972?
We offer a broader range of specialized legal services, including litigation, business, finance, tax, labor and personnel issues, land use, trusts and estates, family law, elder law, personal injury, and criminal defense. Our team approach to these areas has made us very successful.
You’re obviously proud of what the firm has become, Bill. Looking back 45 years, what are the firm’s biggest achievements?
I couldn’t be more proud of our growth. Our numbers have grown exponentially throughout the years. And the firm’s culture and commitment to the community remains as strong as it has ever been.
Why do clients choose to do business with MacElree Harvey?
We provide high-quality services at reasonable rates. Our lawyers are great at what they do.
Looking forward, how do you expect the firm will continue to expand and grow?
Our plan is to strategically grow the firm and expand the depth and quality of the services we provide to our clients. We expanded into Delaware and opened a Centreville office in 2006. We recently doubled that office in size adding a business law practice and a civil litigation practice to the already existing domestic relations practice. The goal is to expand service to current clients who may live in Pennsylvania, but do business in Delaware or vice versa.
In 2015, we opened our office in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Our latest addition is the Bala Cynwyd office in Montgomery County. We plan to continue to grow and expand our services to meet our clients’ needs.
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