The D.A. Will See You Now
Lynne Abraham reflects on three eventful decades of public service.
Published in 2004 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 31, 2004
Updated on August 5, 2015
Through more than three decades of public service, Lynne Abraham has been the kind of in-your-face leader whose toughness and tenacity have earned her a well-deserved reputation as the people’s advocate. Since her tenure as district attorney for the city of Philadelphia began in 1991, City Hall has resonated with an unmistakable message: Be it the attorney general, the president of the United States or the legal system of a foreign government, this lady will take you on, if she believes it is in the best interests of the residents of her city.
Abraham is smart, unafraid, opinionated and controversial. Love her or hate her, sentimentality has no bearing on how she carries out the duties of her office. She states, “I am a leader, and leaders make difficult, sometimes unpopular choices. I’m not in this job to be liked, but I do demand respect.”
She has earned respect — and a lot more. Abraham’s zeal for public service is as well known as her fierce allegiance to the city of her birth. She explains,“For decades I have had ‘The Honorable’ in front of my name. I want people to know that it’s something I take very seriously. For me, it has to be more than just words.” She continues,“I am not interested in riches or wealth. I have a fervent desire to serve, and I want the people of Philadelphia to know that I will work tirelessly for them, every single day.”
Abraham has championed the cause of the underdog for as long as she can remember. As a child of 4, she patrolled the pavement in front of her house to keep her neighborhood “safe from mean people who might try to mess up our nice street.”Today, as she traverses the city’s sidewalks, whether on a casual errand or on her way to a meeting at the highest levels, passersby from cops to cabbies salute her with “Yo,Lynne! Great job!”
Leaving Her Mark
Abraham’s record as a public servant is indeed impressive. Prior to her election as district attorney, she has held posts including assistant district attorney, judge of the Municipal Court of Philadelphia and judge of the Court of Common Pleas.As district attorney, she is responsible for prosecuting more than 70,000 criminal cases yearly, and she heads “the largest law firm in the city,” directing about 300 attorneys and numerous support staff.
She has initiated the most innovative public-service programs in the history of the office. Her outreach includes numerous efforts targeted at youth, to prevent crime and foster productive lives; assistance for victims of crime and their families; and programs for women, children and the elderly.To provide for the specific needs of the city’s culturally diverse population, Abraham has established staff liaison positions for the African American, Latino and Asian communities. Her office publishes a range of information in a variety of languages, including pamphlets to describe city services, the legal system and available assistance programs. All of this information is also posted on the official Web site: www.phila.gov/districtattorney.
Local Girl Makes Good
A classic homegrown hero,Abraham was born the younger of two daughters and raised in a modest row house in the city. She attended Germantown High School and later became the first in her family to graduate from college, working her way through Temple.Although she had her eye on medical school, she chose to attend Temple Law, because “you could work your way through law school. In my family, there just was no other way.”
Most who reach the same comfortable state of self-possession as this diminutive female dynamo arrive after a process lasting decades.Abraham, however,was — well — born like that. She admits with a chuckle, “While other kids were hiding behind their mother’s skirts, I was shaking hands and introducing myself.”
She attributes her confidence and selfreliance to her father, who taught his daughters important lessons they carried throughout their lives.“My father wanted his girls to be able to provide for themselves,” she recollects.“He’d tell us, ‘It’s even more important for you as women to learn to be self-sufficient. Do not depend on a man to take care of you — he may die, he may leave, a whole lot of things not under your control can happen, so you’d better be prepared to take care of yourself.’”
The Down Side
Abraham has come a long way from her law school class (Temple University School of Law, 1965), where she was one of two female students. As a woman it was made clear that she was less than welcome. “They weren’t shy about telling me I was taking a seat that rightly belonged to a man,” she recollects. “Hard to believe, but back then they told me to go home and get married.” However, Abraham reacted in typical digin-her-heels fashion, and the rest, as they say, is history. “Once I got my place, it was going to take a packing hook to get me out of it. I was damn sure nobody was going to take it away from me.
“But I did object to the big lie they tried to feed us. It was the sixties, the age of women being told they could have it all. I never agreed with that. I knew it wasn’t possible, that somewhere along the way you’d need to compromise.
“So I made my choices. I married later in life and decided early that I wouldn’t have kids. Working 14 hours a day, seven days a week at the D.A.’s office, running to murder scenes in the middle of the night was not conducive to having children or a normal family life.And I have no regrets.”
No regrets, but many highlights, among them the day fugitive Ira Einhorn was brought to justice for the murder of Holly Maddux.The case made world news and involved persistence over two decades, tenacious petitioning of then-U.S.Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton, passing a special act of legislation through the Pennsylvania state government and litigating inside the French legal system to accomplish Einhorn’s capture.
Abraham will run for re-election next year. Smiling, she says,“After I win, I will serve the next four years and then maybe pack it in.” She won’t elaborate, but admits to other offers and opportunities. She would like to travel extensively with her husband (Frank Ford, the former radio broadcaster and host of several talk-radio shows until his retirement four years ago) to the Middle East and other far-flung exotic places.
And, although she claims to be planning a long vacation, it is doubtful that the citizens of Philadelphia intend to relinquish their hold on her just yet.