Bringing Innovation To The Philadelphia Bar Association

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - 00:00

Editor: Please tell us about your background.

Cooper: After I graduated from Temple University Law School, I spent one year clerking in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for Judge Herbert Hutton. I joined Blank Rome after the clerkship and have worked in the Employment and Labor Group ever since. My practice is primarily focused on employment issues on the corporate management side, involving a great deal of litigation but also a fair amount of client counseling. About 65 percent of my practice is in the private sector with the remainder in the public sector, where I represent cities, public authorities and similar entities.

Editor: Tell us about how you became involved with the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Cooper: I became involved soon after I joined the firm, as there is a long history between Blank Rome and the Philadelphia Bar Association in that the firm has had several Chancellors. I was active with the Young Lawyers Division and then was elected to the Board of Governors. I co-chaired the Employment and Labor Committee for two terms and continued to run for various offices since then, including Assistant Treasurer and Treasurer. I was in the Cabinet and, as with many organizations, you hit a point when you have to decide to either commit to running for the top office or take a break. I got a lot of encouragement to run, so I did.

Editor: I'm sure that Blank Rome has been very supportive of your involvement.

Cooper: It has in two ways. First, running for Chancellor of the Bar Association requires funding, both because mailings are expensive and campaigning has become very sophisticated (for instance, every candidate now launches a website). I have been told it is analogous to running for mayor of a fairly significant city. Support on the front end is essential. Second, once you get elected you need help on casework, because your practice doesn't stop. Without assistance you will either fail as a lawyer or fail as a leader of the Bar Association. From top to bottom, Blank Rome has been incredibly supportive.

Editor: You are one of the youngest Chancellors in the history of the Bar Association. What motivated you to seek this position?

Cooper: I really took a liking to the organization, both in terms of its mission and the kind of Philadelphians it attracted. When I first got involved with the Bar Assocation, I did not set out to be a leader, but over time I became more involved and people at the Bar Association strongly encouraged me. Unlike other bars, the Philadelphia Bar Association holds completely open elections for its top officers - there is no nominating committee. If what you are saying does not resonate with other Bar Association members, it doesn't matter how much money or sweat equity you put into the organization. You have to convince enough of our 13,000 members that you are the right person.

I saw running simply as an opportunity to do more of what I was already doing, and I felt a desire to help lead the organization. As one of the younger people in this role, I have a certain different take on things. While I would not describe myself as a "young lawyer," I can certainly relate to some of things they are going through. I want to keep the Philadelphia Bar Association relevant for people who have many years of practicing ahead of them.

Editor: As one of the few Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellors to reside in the state of New Jersey, do you feel this provides you with a more regional perspective in your leadership of the Bar Association?

Cooper: Absolutely. We need to be thinking progressively about the way things are changing for people who are still coming up through the pipeline. It used to be that lawyers could think of their practices on a state-by-state - or even a county-by-county - basis, but attitudes have changed. The consuming public is increasingly likely to buy goods and services through the Internet, and I believe that the model for legal services must follow suit. If the best lawyer happens to be in a different city or county, I don't think that the consuming public is going to be concerned, except in very limited types of law, i.e., criminal defense matters when you need a lawyer in the jurisdiction. Outside of those cases, we need to think more broadly. The notion that we in Philadelphia can stand on the old formalities of certain issues ending at the county boundary is not the way of the future. As a New Jersey resident I feel that I have credibility to talk about this issue, because I practice in both states and until very recently split time between the New Jersey and the Philadelphia offices of my firm. Following up on a campaign item, I will be sending out letters to the presidents or presidents-elect of the 11 counties that make up the select Delaware Valley footprint in an effort to come together to discuss regional issues.

Editor: What are the major goals for your administration?

Cooper: One is to ensure that the Bar Association continues to do well the things that it has historically done, given very tightened resources. Second, I have challenged the Bar to be more forward-looking and to broaden our approach to longer-term thinking. For example, I have asked the Bar to create what I refer to as a Bar Association Academy, which will have our Association partner with non-law institutions around the city and region to help build a structure for "learning for life" so that our members can become educated about their communities and be more active in civic and cultural institutions. Ultimately I would like to see the Bar Association become a place where lawyers can get - and stay - plugged into our communities. My hope is that we will strengthen our strategic partnerships with a number of institutions that desperately need to be reconnected with the legal community.

Across the country, people are beginning to see bar association memberships as a luxury. I want to try to reverse that trend. We all know that law firms are cutting training budgets, and we know that young lawyers are desperate for mentoring and relationship-building. I think that this kind of a program can help address those problems while at the same time reenergizing the relevance of our Association, not just today but for the years to come. These are very exciting initiatives, and they have generated tremendous buzz in the city.

Editor: I understand that you are adding a pro bono director.

Cooper: Yes. I have also done a few things to try to improve our governance, including an idea I have seen work for government offices and some of my corporate clients. The Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association has a cabinet, but that cabinet has in my view been underutilized in the past. Using my own experience with politics and the corporate community, I realized we could use this group of leaders much more effectively. For the first time ever, I recruited a Pro Bono and Delivery of Legal Services Advisor whose role is to help advise the leadership of the Bar Association on these issues in a proactive, rather than reactive, way. For this position, I tapped Lou Rulli, a highly regarded professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who is already very plugged into that community. His role in the cabinet is to keep pro bono issues front and center. But he is also a true advisor in the sense that when pertinent legislation comes up he can prepare us.

Currently we have this artificial dichotomy between academia and the legal profession, and we have got to try to reconnect them. I hope to add a representative of the local law schools to our Board of Governors within the next month. Picking somebody from the academic community for Pro Bono Director will help bridge that gap as well.

Editor: And you have also appointed a Diversity Coordinator to join the cabinet?Cooper: Yes. We also need someone to be proactive on our diversity initiatives. We have many different stakeholders with different perspectives on how we should approach diversity as it pertains to employment retention, as well as leadership opportunity within the Bar Association itself. At the moment, we are searching for a second-ever Director of Diversity, who will become a member of the Bar Association's professional staff. To further address diversity, I appointed fellow attorney Scott Reid as a Diversity Coordinator on the cabinet, allowing us to integrate that perspective at the highest level of policy making. Mr. Reid can also advise us of any diversity-related issues proactively. With so many of our legal employers scaling back on hiring, we need to continue addressing diversity issues at a high level.

Editor: How often will your cabinet meet?

Cooper: The cabinet meets once a month. In addition, we have created an internal email distribution list just for the cabinet, which should allow us to press information out and get comments back much more quickly than once a month. Granted, this is only my second month on the job, but so far it seems to be working very well. Instead of having to wait for that once-a-month meeting with its huge agenda, we are able to converse about issues regularly. Besides, not every cabinet member needs or wants to weigh in on every single topic.

As just one example, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell just proposed a new budget which has included the removal of an exemption for the sales tax on legal services. That will be a huge issue if it ever gets legs in Pennsylvania, not only for Bar Association members but most importantly for our clients. I contacted our cabinet to the effect that the Bar Association is aware of the issue and described the steps that we were taking, and I got some very positive comments back from some of the members. The good news was that we did not have to call an emergency meeting - especially in the middle of a blizzard. We teleconferenced, reported on various press interviews and came to a decision about what further actions we would take - all electronically.

Editor: How has the economic downturn impacted law firms and the practice of law?

Cooper: The impact has been very significant. Law firms are not yet gearing up to hire back the number of lawyers that were dismissed in the last 12 to 15 months. Beyond the raw number of people out of work, I believe there are large pockets of underemployment, which can be just as devastating as unemployment. Many lawyers are having to perform work well beneath their skill levels, no doubt feeling deeply frustrated but needing the paycheck. Other lawyers apparently are doing work that is not within their core area of interest, which can also affect satisfaction.

Another concern is that law firms were significant donors to both the Philadelphia Bar Foundation and to other charitable institutions within the region - and there is clearly a tightening of the belt overall city-wide. The downturn is affecting people's willingness to commit to longer-term projects. Any sustained discussion with legal employers about long-term growth or collaboration on things beyond their core client service is extremely rare right now.

Editor: Is the Bar Association conducting a lawyers-in-transition program?

Cooper: Yes. It was one of our primary responses to helping those lawyers who found themselves out of work, in many cases quite abruptly. As an employment lawyer, I always say that lay-offs are harmful, and a lot of them going on simultaneously is even worse. Some of the unemployed lawyers had been employed for a very long time and so they are not familiar with electronic job postings, searches and applications. We designed programs specifically to help lawyers navigate processes being used in the job market today. Job seekers need to get through all that before anyone even sees the substance of their resumes.

One of the things we are doing is to match lawyers who want to keep their hand in legal work with people who don't have access to lawyers. The Philadelphia Bar Association has always had very strong ties to the public service and the pro bono communities, so finding places to put lawyers wasn't much of a challenge. Many lawyers have volunteered with the Bar Association's Lawyer Referral and Information Service, an initiative that utilizes volunteer attorneys to help citizens in need of legal advice. LRIS helps people identify the nature of their legal problems and refers them to an attorney if necessary. Citizens can call 215-238-6333 to speak with a staff attorney who is experienced in analyzing legal issues. If a caller's situation is deemed truly legal in nature, a consultation with a licensed attorney can be arranged for a reduced fee.

Editor: With the Internet bringing all corners of the world closer together, what do you see for the future of law firms?

Cooper: This is probably about the hottest topic I can weigh in on and it is not just a Philadelphia Bar Association issue. The Internet is going to unequivocally test our notions of what it means to be a lawyer licensed in a particular location. At a recent meeting of the American Bar Association, this very topic occupied an entire breakout session. As I said earlier, many legal services are purchased through the Internet, rendering the physical location of a lawyer almost a non-issue.

While law firms are storing documents in one part of the country electronically and retrieving them in another, the ethics rules on confidentiality of records differ from place to place.

Similarly, the advertising rules that have been on each of the states' books will have to adapt to the Internet. In the Internet era when a search from California could find a lawyer in Georgia, it becomes very, very difficult to determine, let alone enforce, uniform standards. Clearly this is a very significant problem that only becomes more complex when you consider the international factor, with rules varying from country to country. Any rule that we have lived by has to be reevaluated in the light of the Internet.

Please email the interviewee at cooper@blankrome.com with questions about this interview.