New Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor's Goals Include Increasing Diversity In Legal Profession

Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 01:00

Editor: Please tell us something about your background and your practice.

Pratt : I was born in a house in Grindstone, Pennsylvania with no running water and an outhouse, the fourth of 12 children. I went to Washington and Jefferson College and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985. I clerked on the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for the Hon. Nathaniel Jones for a year in Cincinati, Ohio, then I joined the law firm of Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia, where I have now been for over 21 years. I left twice for short stints: once to work as the head of the Commercial Litigation Unit for the City of Philadelphia Law Department and once to go in-house for 17 months with Honeywell International at the beginning of 2002. I practice in the area of commercial litigation and toxic tort litigation.

Editor: When did you start working with the Philadelphia Bar Association?

Pratt: Actually, I started very soon after starting my law firm career. I ran for the Executive Committee of the Young Lawyers Section in 1988 and became the first African American to chair that section in 1991. The Young Lawyers Section, now Division, is basically public service oriented: we developed a variety of community programs and developed very close friendships and alliances - many of those people are my friends to this day.

Editor: I have had the pleasure of interviewing several previous chancellors, including Audrey Tally, the first African American woman to serve as chancellor. Is promoting diversity within the legal profession one of the major goals for your term?

Pratt: Yes. It is among the four major goals I outlined in my inaugural speech on December 4. In fact, I want to see, in very short order, a substantial increase in the number of diverse lawyers in legal institutions across the legal community in Philadelphia. The Board of Governors has approved the creation of a new, full-time position at the Philadelphia Bar Association: Director of the Office of Diversity. We are in the process of interviewing, and by the time your readers have this before them, we will have hired our first director for the Office of Diversity. The new director will provide the vision, leadership and support to develop and carry out programs and practices to encourage diversity in the Philadelphia legal community. The director will help us develop our diversity programs and will work with legal employers across the City to help them to recruit, retain and promote people of color. We have had a Minorities in the Profession Committee and a Women in the Profession Committee for many years, which have addressed professional issues affecting minorities and women and their progress in the legal profession. We will now have a dedicated, professional staff person, who is trained to work with us and with our volunteers on issues affecting diversity - not just racial but gender issues as well.

So, the Bar Association will be able to collect and analyze data, ensure data accuracy and report on the progress of the Philadelphia legal community in achieving diversity goals through studies and other means. We will also collect and disseminate information about evolving best practices aimed at recruitment, retention and promotion of a diverse and inclusive legal environment across demographic lines. This new Office of Diversity will provide concrete support to build and maintain successful diversity efforts delivered in hands-on regular working sessions with targeted roundtables of diversity professionals, diversity chairs and managing partners.

Editor: Please tell us about the other major goals of your administration.

Pratt: Another goal ties in with improving the business climate. We want to work with the City administration and the City Council to help eliminate or substantially reduce what is called the Business Privilege Tax. Basically, this tax is a tax on unincorporated businesses that, we think, stunts the growth of businesses in the city. As you know, most of our law firms are partnerships. The Business Privilege Tax taxes both the gross receipts and the net income of the partnership. In 2005, City Council passed legislation cutting the gross receipts portion of the Business Privilege Tax over five years with the possibility that the tax would eventually be eliminated. I have appointed a special task force of former City Solicitors, former political leaders and local legal tax experts, to provide hard data on the positive return that will be realized only with the elimination of this onerous tax. We want to work closely with the Mayor and City Council to develop strategies for finally achieving this most important economic objective. We think that, by getting rid of the tax, law firms would be encouraged to grow their practices in the City, employ more people and thereby improve the economy for all Philadelphians.

The third goal is to create a civics education program - which will be a partnership/collaboration between the Philadelphia Bar Association and the School District of Philadelphia - where we will have volunteer lawyers and judges go into public school classrooms here in the City and teach civics to public school students. Currently there is very little civics education being taught in public schools. We want to help teachers and supplement their courses by bringing in our volunteers on a once-a-month basis, to teach a civics curriculum which we will develop.

My fourth goal is a program that will help to substantially increase the funding for legal services organizations in the City. We will be creative, aggressive and daring and we will leverage our law firm giving to seek funding from other sources. We seek to reach a level of impact that will bring Philadelphia closer to guaranteeing broad access to justice for thousands of disenfranchised and vulnerable individuals in Philadelphia.

Editor: We have just read about the great expectations surrounding the election of Michael Nutter as Mayor of Philadelphia. Do you know him personally? Do you expect to work with him closely?

Pratt: Yes, I know him and consider him a friend. Michael Nutter was a candidate who ran on a reform platform, a man the political pundits wrote off early in the campaign. He is generating more excitement with his election than I have seen in many years. Ed Rendell generated a lot of excitement, but Mayor Nutter has certainly fostered great expectations. I think the City is doing quite well, but Mike Nutter brings a new element; he will bring new people into government, he will get more people interested in government, and in the City of Philadelphia and in the School District in terms of how they operate and function. The expectations are very high: I think he has the talent, commitment, drive and leadership ability to accomplish many good things, but they aren't going to happen overnight. At the time of my election as chancellor, Mayor Nutter came to our luncheon and gave a few remarks which were totally supportive of my goals at the Philadelphia Bar Association that I outlined above.

Editor: The City of Philadelphia seems to be booming with large, new construction projects.

Pratt: This City has undergone a renaissance since I moved here, in terms of Center City. It is a much different place. Construction continues: you'll find that the building of housing, condominiums and townhouses in Center City is unbelievable. The population of Center City continues to grow. There are new buildings, new projects and new ideas, and I expect that to continue. However, in spite of the efforts of our former Mayor Street, we still have a long way to go to bring the same kind of prosperity to the neighborhoods of Philadelphia, so that we are uplifting everyone. We still have a high percentage of Philadelphians who are living below the poverty level; our schools still need a substantial amount of resources and social issues must be addressed, notwithstanding the great leadership of our school reform commission and our school district staff. We do not have the funding and the resources necessary to educate students the way they should be educated. I have adopted the task force on public school funding, established by my predecessor, Jane Dalton. That task force will be working on a strategy to respond to the findings of a recent commissioned study that showed a significant disparity in funding between different school districts across the Commonwealth. Billions of dollars are needed in order to adequately fund school districts throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia's needs in this regard are great. Our task force will come up with strategies and ideas of what we can do to collaborate with other communities to get our state legislature to focus on this issue of funding for schools.

Editor: Has the Bar made progress in increasing the participation of in-house counsel in its committees and projects?

Pratt: I have created a new committee called the Corporate In-House Committee, and have appointed as co-chairs Doug Gaston, general counsel of Comcast Cable, and Marilyn Heffley, the head of litigation for Sunoco, to spearhead the creation of a committee that will address the needs of in-house counsel here in the City of Philadelphia and to provide a network for them. This will be a new standing committee in the Bar Association. I hope that we can encourage those in-house counsel who are members of the Philadelphia Bar to get more active and involved. We will try to develop programs that address their particular needs.

Editor: How does the Association relate to the larger Philadelphia community in legal and civic areas?

Pratt: We have a history of doing great community work for the City in supporting the needy, supporting pro bono work, spearheading fundraising efforts for legal services and going into schools with our volunteers. There is much more that we can and should do. I think there is a perception problem: the general community doesn't really see that we are the same as everyone else. We are community leaders, we volunteer in our schools, synagogues and mosques, we coach little league and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops - we do care about our community. However, we do need more of us to focus on the City where we live and work.

Editor: How has Pepper Hamilton encouraged your participation in the Philadelphia Bar Association?

Pratt: The firm has been supportive of me since I was a young lawyer. They have provided resources and time, and have allowed me to grow within the Bar Association. They have been supportive of my run for vice chancellor and have been supportive of me as I ascended to chancellor. I am very proud to be a member of the firm and I can't say enough about the support that they have given me. I still need to maintain a practice and my partners are willing to give me the backup that I require to address the needs of my clients and to do a good job as chancellor.

Please email the interviewee at prattam@pepperlaw.com with questions about this interview.