Distinguished Alumni Profiles: Dave Sykes (Part One)

Dave Sykes (LAW ‘65) was an exceptional lawyer, leader, teacher, mentor, friend, motivator and visionary. As a pioneer in the field of bankruptcy law, Sykes was highly influential in making bankruptcy practice as pervasive and respected as it is today. In addition to his work as a partner at Duane Morris, Sykes helped to organize the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Conference and also created the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project, a non-profit organization that provides pro-bono debt counseling and bankruptcy representation to Philadelphians that cannot afford a private attorney.  

I was fortunate enough to begin working with Dave Sykes in 1975, and were it not for his mentorship, and guidance over the next 20 years I would not be who I am today. 

In February 2010, after a long and illustrious career as both a lawyer and civic leader, Dave Sykes passed away. 

Recently, we urged friends and former colleagues to share their memories of him for a profile on the 10-Q. The outpouring of responses we received was truly remarkable. In fact, we’re making his profile a two part series in order to adequately capture the enduring contributions he made to the legal field and his community. Enjoy part one of this tribute to his life and legacy, below…

– Hon. Marjorie O. Rendell, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit


Dave Sykes was born in Philadelphia in 1937. He was a graduate of Temple University School of Law and Hamilton College. He served in the U.S. Navy as a shipboard officer aboard the USS Springfield, and was honorably discharged as a lieutenant.

After graduating from Temple, Dave started at Duane Morris, where he would spend his career. He formed and headed the firm’s bankruptcy practice for two decades, and was instrumental in building bankruptcy as a nationally respected practice area, growing their business reorganization and financial services group from two lawyers, to hundreds, nationally, today. He became managing partner in 1994, and also served as vice chairman from 1998 to 2004.

“Dave was the first lawyer at Duane Morris – and probably one of the first in Philadelphia period – to develop a practice that, while based in Philadelphia, was truly national in scope.” – John J. Soroko, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Duane Morris LLP

“After accepting Duane Morris’ offer for employment as a summer associate, I discovered in December of 1969 that I was pregnant.  Feeling like Hester Prynn with a Scarlet Letter A, I was sure that I would be told that the firm had no interest in my continuing as a summer associate, especially because of the comments of interviewers from other firms during the prior fall.  After a few pleasantries, I told Dave that I was pregnant and due in July.  I was astounded when he virtually jumped over his desk and congratulated me.  It turned out that his wife was also expecting at the same time in July of 1970.  Because of Dave, I had a great experience that summer and I received an offer of employment in the fall of 1971.” – Jane Leslie Dalton, Of Counsel, Duane Morris LLP

“Dave was a very demanding lawyer. As was predictable, that had the effect of making some lawyers nervous about working with Dave. I recall he put in his office a sign that read: “My goal is not to terrorize you –but to inspire you.” I have always thought that that summed up Dave quite well!” – John J. Soroko, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Duane Morris LLP

“In our practices, we are surrounded by many brilliant, highly‑skilled lawyers. Certainly, Dave was one of them. But the way he was able to relate to – and often bond with – his colleagues distinguished him from the others. Simply put, everyone liked David.” – David G. Heiman, Partner, JONES DAY

“I first met Dave Sykes when I interviewed with his bankruptcy group at Duane Morris in the early 80’s.  He greeted me in the conference room having just returned from lunch.  He was wearing a rumpled raincoat, a squashed rain hat and eating an ice cream cone. Here was the head of a most prestigious bankruptcy practice!  This was signature Dave; his warmth and approachability never detracted from his strength and authority.” – Judge Diane Weiss Sigmund (ret.)

As an advocate, Sykes was subtle but effective. He built his national reputation representing 14 insurance company lenders against Braniff International Airways. He also represented Meridian Bank and many other financial institutions.  

“Dave was humble and soft spoken but he dominated the room. He was the best possible model of the lawyer we were all aspiring to be.” James L. Baillie, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.

“Duane Morris had offered me a position upon my graduation from law school and, even though I had requested a spot in the litigation group, David called me to (strongly) request that I start in the bankruptcy department, and so with some reluctance I joined what was soon to become, under his leadership, one of the most dynamic practices in our firm’s history. I remember one episode in a contentious case where Dave, having read our opponent’s memorandum of law, noted the opponent’s failure to cite a recent case that was supportive of the other side’s position.  Dave called the opponent on the phone, tactfully pointed out the omission, and thereby sealed the enduring respect and admiration of a fellow attorney.  Dave never lost sight of the high principle that effective advocacy means arguing your best case under existing law, rather than trying to “sneak one past” the judge or your opponent.” – Rudolph Dimassa, Partner, Duane Morris LLP

“As an advocate, Dave could be forceful, but always respectful and soft spoken. To say he walked softly but carried a big stick is not far off the mark.” – Barry D. Kleban, Partner, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP

In 1988, Sykes co-founded the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s Bankruptcy Conference, a non-profit professional organization for those in bankruptcy practice, it still serves to educate practitioners as well as fostering a sense of community within the industry.  

“I worked with David as a friendly adversary in many cases, but our real and most rewarding work together took place in establishing what became the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Conference. One of the goals was to include both the commercial and consumer bankruptcy bars, as there existed a large divide between the practitioners and little interchange about common and differing areas of these two practices. Unlike some of the other conferences that we had attended, our idea was to use bankruptcy law professors from the District and later from far beyond the District, to serve as facilitators for both the plenary and break-out educational sessions. The Conference continues to provide a forum for socialization among both consumer and commercial bankruptcy lawyers, to provide quality educational programs including a Third Circuit case law review that virtually requires attendance, and to nurture young bankruptcy lawyers.  Simply, the Conference would not have been established without David’s gravitas and leadership.” – Michael Bloom, Of Counsel, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

To be continued…

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