Marcel S. Pratt spent most of his childhood in West Philadelphia, just north of 50th and Market Streets, in a house where the walls shook every time the Market-Frankford El passed. It was a mostly low-income neighborhood that Pratt described as "very resilient."
Ten blocks away, students from all over the world attended the University of Pennsylvania. When Pratt joined them as an undergraduate, it felt like a different planet, despite the proximity to where he grew up.
Pratt worked three jobs between classes, made it to law school, and landed at one of the most prestigious law firms in the city, Ballard Spahr LLP. Now, at 33, Pratt is the new city solicitor.
His story is like a classic fairy tale. But it's not one Pratt boasts about. He is reserved, and lets bits and pieces of his personal life come out only when asked. Yet it's hard to ignore that his background influenced his decision to leave the partner track at Ballard — and the high pay that comes with it — for a job fighting for Mayor Kenney's progressive causes: Philadelphia as a "sanctuary city"; the right to tax sweetened drinks to pay for universal pre-K; and making opioid manufacturers pay for addiction treatment.
"I felt like it was a time in government where the city was being very innovative and were tackling a lot of difficult issues, and I wanted to be part of it in some capacity," Pratt said, referring to his 2016 arrival as head of the city's litigation department.
On April 19, City Council confirmed Pratt as city solicitor.
Previous City Solicitor Sozi Tulante ramped up the practice known as "affirmative litigation" — filing lawsuits in which the city advocates for its residents against the federal government, big banks and the like — and that's the reason Pratt came to work for Tulante and Kenney. When Tulante quit this year to teach full time, the mayor immediately turned to Pratt to lead the city's Law Department, a $15 million operation with 300 employees. Pratt is paid $175,000 a year.
"I felt like I was definitely ready for it, because I had been in tune with all the biggest cases and issues," Pratt said.
Just last week, Pratt diligently took notes during federal court arguments for the sanctuary city case, in which the city seeks to block the U.S. Justice Department from withholding grants to punish Philadelphia's policy of not helping federal agents hold and deport undocumented immigrants. Pratt has overseen the strategy of that case from the beginning, and wants to see it through.
"This is a very important case that speaks to who we are as a city," Pratt said.
Pratt looks fresh out of law school — at his confirmation hearing, Council members joked that he should come back when he turns 21 — but carries himself with the confidence of someone years older. The well-tailored Brooks Bros. suits probably help.
But everyone from city leaders and the department's rank-and-file attorneys to top Ballard lawyers who worked with Pratt say he has the experience and capability to be solicitor.
"He's an extremely intelligent young lawyer, and I'm very proud of him. Despite his youth, he is wise and commanding," Kenney said.
Ballard Spahr chairman Mark S. Stewart compared Pratt to a famous Ballard alum: David L. Cohen, now senior executive vice president at Comcast Corp.
"They are the two people who stand out in my mind as young litigator partners who were identified early on as would-be leaders," Stewart said.
Pratt's early childhood was spent with his mother, Rebecca Cherry, at her home near 23rd and Berks Streets. At age 8, Pratt moved to West Philadelphia to live with his father, Marcel A. Pratt, who was a manager for several State Stores.
Pratt graduated at the top of his class from Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill in 2002 and attended Penn on an academic scholarship. He majored in economics and during his sophomore year decided he wanted to be a lawyer.
"It was more of an intellectual interest," Pratt said. "I just started to realize that the law was everywhere. Everywhere that you look, there is some regulation that applies, there's some law you have to follow. For business, for government, it just impacts every facet of life."
Pratt wanted to stay in Philadelphia for law school to be close to his family. He enrolled at Temple University. After his second year, he worked as a summer associate at Ballard.
When Pratt graduated from law school in 2009, law firms were reeling from the Great Recession and not hiring first-year associates. Ballard offered him a stipend to work for the Law Department until it could bring him aboard. During that year, Pratt worked defending the city from lawsuits.
Pratt went to Ballard in 2010 and worked on antitrust cases and commercial litigation.
He had kept in touch with many of the city attorneys he worked with his first year as a lawyer. So it was an easy transition when he went back to the city in 2016. Now he's their boss.
Pratt's goals for the Law Department include increasing training for staff attorneys, upgrading technology and marketing the allure of the city's Law Department to recruit lawyers. He said he also plans to file more "affirmative litigation" cases.
During his confirmation hearing, he vowed to help keep legal advice to Council members confidential. He called that relationship "the hallmark of the attorney-client privilege," which Council members were happy to hear, given their frequent apprehension of using the same lawyer as the mayor.
Pratt is proud of his Philadelphia roots and says he plans to remain.
He purchased a condo in the Callowhill loft district, making it easy to walk to work and giving him ample space to perfect the best way to cook snapper. He's been trying different methods. Just nothing that involves cheese. He hates all cheese.
How does he survive without pizza in his life?