Marcel Pratt has headed Philadelphia’s Law Department since 2018. During his tenure, he has navigated high-profile legal issues that have kept the city on the national stage. This month, the 35-year-old legal wunderkind announced he will be returning to private practice for a leadership role at Ballard Spahr, the firm where he began his legal career.
The past year has been a whirlwind for Pratt, who will leave his job as City Solicitor on Dec. 10 to become the Philadelphia managing partner at one of the nation’s top law firms.
“Within the past two weeks alone, we went before the United States Supreme Court to defend Philadelphia’s antidiscrimination policies,” wrote Pratt in his Nov. 17 resignation letter to Mayor Kenney. “We also helped ensure a safe, fair, and orderly process for the 2020 General Election, a process that we will continue to defend from meritless legal challenges during my final weeks in office.”
Diana Cortes, the Law Department’s litigation chair, will become the city’s new — and first Latina — city solicitor.
“Some of our administration’s greatest accomplishments are tied to Marcel’s leadership of our legal strategy and operations, especially our consistent success in legal matters that have defined us as a city” Kenny said in a statement. “Marcel’s remarkable tenure included some of the most consequential legal matters in recent history.”
The Inquirer spoke with Pratt last week about his accomplishments, his hopes for Ballard, and what he believes Philadelphia must do to improve its business climate. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you choose to return to private practice now?
The time felt right. Most solicitors do this job for two to three years. I’ve been doing it for two years and eight months. My predecessors joke that I’ve packed in 20 years worth of challenges in my time. Also, after the election, it felt like a decent time to leave. I’ve been spending most of my time recently defending the challenges to our election process.
Can you describe what’s been going on?
It’s been hectic for the past three weeks. All the timelines have been very tight. Things get filed out of nowhere. There’s a misinformation campaign that’s ongoing. But I think we’ve been successful in refuting most of it. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided in our favor in the observer watcher case at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. We were working around the clock on that.
As city solicitor, what do you consider your greatest accomplishments and most difficult challenges?
We defended antidiscrimination and equity measures that were enacted by the city. We successfully defended our soda tax which is being used to fund pre-K. We successfully sued the Trump administration for withholding money because of our Welcoming City policies [also known as Sanctuary City status]. We successfully defended the Wage Equity Ordinance, which banned salary history questions to help close the wage gap for women and people of color.
We also developed the novel legal framework for COVID-19 mitigation measures for business activities and private conduct. We didn’t have a playbook for it, but we researched things thoroughly and came up with one that not only respected civil liberties but also mitigated the spread of the virus. The office still reviews every restriction for legality before the executive orders are issued.
Did that include the controversial announcement that shuts down much of the city until Jan. 1?
Yes. We worked with Health Commissioner [Tom] Farley and Mayor Kenney who had ideas of what they’d like to see done based on the scientific information. Then we figured out a legal framework for doing that.
What are you looking forward to most in returning to Ballard?
Having more than one client. I’m looking forward to getting involved in really big, bet-the-company litigation. High-exposure litigation. Those were the kinds of cases we handled when I was a member of Ballard’s antitrust group until 2016. The firm has started a focus on racial justice and I’d like to be a part of that as well.
As head of litigation, what will you be doing?
I will be the managing partner of the Philadelphia office. My role will be a balance of helping to lead the business aspects and at the same time representing clients. Ballard has always valued civic engagement and I would like to continue and advance those efforts. Having been in public service, I can really help move that agenda forward. I’ll have the ability to influence hiring in the firm, add to the diversity efforts and promote the firm in attracting clients.
What effect will the pandemic have on your return to Ballard?
I’m dealing every day with COVID-19 issues as the lawyer for the city — talking with the mayor and health commissioner directly. So I know how governments are dealing with the pandemic.
I think clients will have issues that are COVID-related or stem from the problems COVID has caused.
There’s extra reliance on technology and the way you communicate within the firm has changed. We were very big on large team meetings, getting into a room and discussing complex legal issues, zipping down the hall. You can’t do that in a remote environment. You have to be intentional and keep those pathways of communication open, where you’re brainstorming all day long.
Given your experience as solicitor, how would you improve the business climate in Philadelphia?
First, I’d say we should have more, not less, collaboration between government and the private sector. Both have the same interests and goals which are making Philadelphia the best place it can be to live and work. With more collaboration, we can face the problems. I hope that we take the level of communication we have now and increase it.
Second, increasing investment in small- and minority-owned businesses is key. That helps our underserved communities. Many of the problems we face stem from economic inequality.
We also need to double down on West Philadelphia, home to much of our ‘eds and meds’ -- our universities, hospitals and scientific start-ups. That makes the city more attractive. The universities generate the intellectual capital. When you have people who are highly skilled, it makes the city an attractive place to visit, work, and stay. It’s where we need to increase our focus.
It was an excellent move on Penn’s part to make that sizable $100 million donation to the school district. That sets the example for what a large institution should do. That will make our business climate better.
You’re an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple. Did you go to Philadelphia public schools?
I went to Catholic schools. But I’ve lived in the city my entire life. I grew up at 50th and Market. I believe in this city.
As solicitor, you were tasked with defending police cases. Do you have any recommendations as you leave about police department policies, primarily, shoot to kill?
I think the mayor’s initiative, which is called Pathways to Reform, Transformation and Reconciliation, has been useful in advising a police reform agenda. Much is contingent on collective bargaining. For the law department we’ve used our experience in litigation to help solve problems and change policies. I instituted an after-action review policy, where if we get a judgment over a threshold, then that generates recommendations from a panel of lawyers to improve practice.
I didn’t want to see cases settled and then have us put the file away. We want the police department to do its job better.
Can you discuss the opioid litigation?
Our case that we filed in state court here in Pennsylvania is still pending. There have been negotiations with the manufacturers and we’re just letting the process play out. The problem with opioid addiction in general is that we need more resources to solve it.