The Colgate Scene
September 2000
Table of contents
In the courtroom, on the campaign trail
by Rebecca Costello

Sherry Swirsky '73, who served as Pennsylvania counsel for President Clinton's campaigns in 1992 and 1996, has attended several social events at the White House, including a holiday party where she had a chance to celebrate with the First Couple.
Senior litigation partner Sherry Swirsky '73 shares her expertise with others, both professionally and as an active volunteer in local, state and national politics.

     Over the years Swirsky made her way in the historically male-dominated legal profession, and in 1987 became one of a small number of woman partners at Schnader Harri-son Segal & Lewis, the large Philadelphia law firm she joined in 1978.

     "Life for women lawyers in the firm and in the courtroom then was uncharted territory," Swirsky remarked. "A handful of us came up about at the same time and each of us had to find our own way. I learned to pick my battles carefully."

     Today Swirsky represents large corporations in antitrust, securities, insurance and healthcare litigation and handles internal investigations. The clients she represents have ranged from the Barnes Foundation (a Philadelphia-area arts institution), American Airlines and Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corporation, to the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. She also represents companies and individuals before the Securities and Exchange Commission and her pro bono work has included representing plaintiffs in domestic abuse and child abuse cases.

     "I've been fortunate to have a sophisticated practice," Swirsky said, noting that the profession has changed dramatically since she joined it, with partners being increasingly expected to generate their own business. "You have to develop an entrepreneurial side," she explained, "which is different from writing a brilliant brief or being an excellent legal strategist. It means going out and shaking the bushes."

     Along with getting a good result for her clients, Swirsky finds great satisfaction in spending a considerable amount of time mentoring younger lawyers on all facets of the job. "I didn't have anybody to do that for me -- not just how to be an adept lawyer, but also how to develop business, how to promote yourself -- the things they never teach you in law school. It's a marvelous thing to watch young lawyers grow."


Swirsky credits her own growth and resolve, in part, to her Colgate experience. At that time, she was one of seven women in a class of more than 500 -- good training ground for learning "not to be intimidated about speaking out."

     One particular experience remains a case in point. Swirsky was the only woman in a history class with Doc Reading '33, who was a favorite professor but whose daily greeting left her feeling excluded. "Doc would come in in this Mr. Chips way and say, `Good afternoon, gentlemen.'" After a few weeks, Swirsky got up the nerve to go to his office and ask him to vary his greeting.

     "Doc listened to me and he was very cordial," she stressed. "The next day he came in and said, `Good afternoon, gentlemen . . . And Sherry.' -- which he proceeded to say for the rest of the semester." Swirsky had convinced the professor whose classroom traditions were the stuff of legend to meet her halfway, at least.

     Swirsky had transferred to Colgate from George Washington University in 1970. "I met some Colgate people during an antiwar march on the State Department. I was so impressed by them, that that was where I ended up."

     A social psychology major, Swirsky created an enormously involved study for her senior thesis in an area where, although some seminal work had been done, standard tests were not available. Undaunted, Swirsky developed her own psychological tests, guided by her thesis advisor Tom Chase.

     "I got such terrific support and it turned out to be a challenging senior thesis, but it was a wonderful experience."

     Active as a representative on the Academic Affairs Committee and summer intern working for Hunt Terrell in the Peace Studies program, Swirsky participated in the antiwar movement and the fledgling women's movement. She graduated class salutatorian, Phi Beta Kappa, with high honors in her major.

     It was coming out of that activist college period that Swirsky decided to enter law. Having originally hoped to be a clinical psychologist, she "was despairing that working with people on an individual basis would not effect social change, which for students of my generation was a major preoccupation," she explained. "I decided that I might accomplish more with a law degree. While I can hardly say that by working for corporate clients I am carrying out my student aspirations, certainly my work in the Democratic Party is intended to do that."

An authority
    Swirsky has become an authority on campaign finance and election law. Through volunteer involvement in the Democratic Party, she found a counterpoint to her practice of corporate law.

     Swirsky became intensely interested in the marriage of law and politics when she took a year off from law school in 1976-77. She had the opportunity to work in the general counsel's office at the brand-new Federal Election Commission, established to administer the new federal campaign finance laws. Then when she came to Pennsylvania in 1978 to work for Schnader Harrison, Swirsky undertook the formidable task of teaching herself state election law.

     "Every state has a body of election law that governs things like who gets on the ballot and how, where polling places are located, and who can register to vote," she explained.

     Her depth of knowledge has made Swirsky a valuable campaign advisor. In 1980, when Ted Kennedy ran for president, she was asked to be Pennsylvania counsel for his campaign. Ever since, she has served in that same capacity for Democratic presidential candidates -- Dukakis in 1988, Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and now Gore in 2000 (she did represent the Bill Bradley campaign in the primary but is now "back in the fold").

     In 1988 Swirsky served as a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Democratic National Committee Rules Committee. She also began working on an effort to create election law manuals and other training materials for campaign workers for presidential and congressional campaigns.

     "Having thought up the idea, the next thing I know I'm writing this 50-state election law survey, which I update every four years. It's a labor of love." The fruits of that labor, Preparing for Election Day: A Lawyer's Manual, are used around the country. Swirsky also conducts training sessions for state Democratic Party officials and campaign coordinators nationwide. The focus is on ensuring that campaigns are run following proper prodecures, as well as on teaching volunteers "to make election law work for you as opposed to working for your opponent."

     Swirsky has also worked with the Democratic National Committee on issues such as combating tactics used to intimidate or harass minority voters.

     An executive committee member of the Democratic National Committee National Lawyers Council since 1990, Swirsky has written nationally distributed materials for the council on protecting voting rights and on election day legal issues and organization; she also coordinated oversight of state implementation of the "Motor Voter Law."

     Swirsky was a Presidential Elector in the Electoral College in 1992, and has several times -- most recently, just this past August in Los Angeles -- served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

     At the local level, Swirsky was appointed by Philadelphia's mayor to head the 25-member City of Philadelphia Election Reform Task Force in 1994. She has served her city in several other ways, including as co-chair of the city's Water/Gas Task Force and on transition teams for the mayor and the city controller.

     For Swirsky, with this work come many rewards. She enjoys working on campaign strategy, and "there's such a small group of people who do what I do that we end up on campaigns over and over again -- I work with people I first met when I worked at the Federal Election Commission. It has been a wonderful opportunity to use my legal skills in a different context, and also a means by which I've developed my own professional network that is off the beaten track."

     Swirsky has been a pioneer throughout her career, just as she was at Colgate. "It was such a wonderfully nurturing small community and liberal arts environment. The analytical skills I gained and the encouragement I got from the faculty made it possible for me to live the life I live. And my future is still uncharted territory."

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