Talking with ... Carl Cooper

Attorney's mission: promoting diversity

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Carl Cooper, formerly chief diversity officer at law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates and Ellis, launched his own Pittsburgh-based consulting business in May.

Q: How did diversity in the legal profession become your specialty?

A: I was the in-house counsel for the Pittsburgh Housing Authority and had been at the Urban Redevelopment Authority so I knew many people and was contacted by Kirkpatrick & Lockhart to help them develop a diversity initiative.

I met with Peter Kalis who was the managing partner. We were talking about the mission and the goals of the initiative and then we started to focus on identifying an individual to head it. It never dawned on me they would be thinking about me. I was telling them about my Rolodex and that I knew everybody and could help them find the right person. Finally, they just focused on me. They convinced me it was an extraordinary opportunity, that I was the right person for it and they weren't sure they would do it if I didn't take the job.

Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.
Carl Cooper
Job: Diversity consultant

Age: 63

Hometown: Philadelphia; lives in Highland Park

Education: Bachelor of science, business administration, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, 1967; law degree, Howard University School of Law, 1972.

Career: 1972-75: city attorney, Benton Harbor, Mich.; 1975-77: teaching fellow, Harvard Law School; 1977-84: assistant professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Law; 1984-86: deputy executive director for educational programs, Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Washington, D.C.; 1986-91: associate professor, City University of New York School of Law at Queens College; 1991-96: managing partner, Eaton & McClellan, Philadelphia; 1997: attorney, Joseph Williams Attorney at Law, Pittsburgh; 1997-98: manager, real estate department, Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh; 1998-2002: director, real estate department, Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh; 2002-03: general counsel, Pittsburgh Housing Authority; 2003-2007: chief diversity officer, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis, Pittsburgh; May 2007-present: diversity consultant, based in Pittsburgh.


Listen In:

Carl Cooper, diversity consultant, talks with PG reporter Joyce Gannon.

Why he left Kirkpatrick & Lockhart to strike out on his own as a diversity consultant.

Pittsburgh's drawbacks in trying to diversify its workforce.


Q: It was a new position not only at Kirkpatrick but among major law firms nationwide. Was it intimidating to assume that role?

A: It was by all accounts an unprecedented appointment. I was the first chief diversity officer in a major law firm appointed at the management level in the country. It had national implications and obviously, it was the buzz in the news locally because no other law firm had tried that kind of initiative. The firm wanted me to be a national spokesperson for diversity.

They felt it was not enough to change the culture at K&L if it didn't impact the legal profession at large. Again, it was an unprecedented ability to have a national platform and to talk about diversity in a lot of different corners.

Q: What did you do to diversify the ranks at K&L?

A: We had undertaken what I think was one of the critical paths for retention: We hired an outside consulting group to come in and train all the lawyers -- partners and associates -- on best practices in terms of mentoring including cross-gender and cross-cultural mentoring techniques. It was really eye-opening for all who participated: The partners hearing for the first time from young associates what their expectations were from senior partners, [associates] understanding what the legacy was they were buying into.

And to ensure we were going to get traction with this investment of training, we hired two people full time to work with me on retention. They worked with every single associate ... on getting good assignments, getting feedback, understanding what the competencies were and the skills sets needed.

We developed a mentoring guide. We continued to help individuals with pairing so if you weren't with the right person, if the chemistry wasn't there, we could switch and there was no retribution. We went from a system where the partners were required to mentor to a wholly volunteer system so that people who were mentoring were people who really had a commitment to mentor. And we undertook 360-degree evaluations so mentors were evaluated by mentees as well as mentees being evaluated by mentors.

The constant contact with associates as they were going through their first and second years gave them a new sense of expectation that the firm was committed to their aspirations as partners. We began to see some lowering of attrition. We were very successful at getting our numbers up and keeping them up. [I started in 2003] and by 2006, we had gone from 64 minority associates to 112, from five minority partners to 18, from 33 women partners to 70. We also increased the number of disabled lawyers and lawyers with a different sexual orientation.

Q: Why did you leave K&L?

A: I had done all I could do. I had gotten to the point where the partners had to take over and make the people they brought it partners. Diversity officers don't make partners. Partners make partners. It seemed to me that I might be able to do a lot more at law firms that weren't close to where K&L was if I went out on my own.

And quite frankly, I wanted to be on my own. I did not want to have a boss, even a nice boss. I needed to be able to determine for myself where I was going to go and where I was going to put my energies. And this has been the greatest move of my life -- aside from going to K&L which I think was an unbelievable move in my life because K&L gave me a national platform and I have clients across the country now. ...

I've always been a believer that timing is everything. You can stay at the party too long. And I did not want to leave K&L when K&L was ready for me to leave. I wanted to leave K&L when I was ready to leave.

Q: What are Pittsburgh's drawbacks in trying to attract a diversified work force?

A: You have an image problem, a poverty problem and an aging population. The city is known on one hand for being a great retirement community but on the other hand, it is always at the bottom of the heap when you're talking about a place for young people to come. So we have a hard time bringing young people in and an even harder time keeping young people here. I can't even keep my daughter here. She's in Westport, Conn. Why you go to Westport as opposed to Pittsburgh is beyond me. She just felt like this is not a welcoming community for a young, African-American woman. ...

But this is not just about people of color. We have a problem keeping young people across the board.

Q: So what can the city do to improve its image? .....

A: Diversity is done at the retail level; not the wholesale level. You have to convince people: partners one by one, associates one by one, community residents and politicians one by one. So I spend an inordinate amount of time with people, convincing people about what the value is in a community like this.

It's affordable and you will rise much faster here to the top than you would in those wonderful cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Washington and New York. The competition is not as stiff here. But there is competition here and there is talent here. That I was the first chief diversity officer in the country and I came out of Pittsburgh ... you can be a national figure coming out of Pittsburgh.

I've been mentoring young people since 1972 across the board without regard to race or gender. We bring a number of young kids over to our house over the summer. We let them meet each other and get to know a broader network. And we just have fun, fellowship. There's no speech. Just nurturing these young people. ... I think more people need to do that kind of reaching out and I think it will pay off dividends beyond anybody's expectations.

Another thing that needs to happen is we need a pipeline beyond law school and college. All the way to where it starts: Pre-K ... our minority kids fall off at fourth grade. I started teaching at Manchester Academy and next year I'm going to teach the fourth grade class.

Half the problem is just getting [young people and minorities] into the city. If you get them here, you take them to Mount Washington, The Waterfront, South Side, Summerset at Frick Park, and you blow their minds. We have not had a lot of success bringing kids who live and who were born in other communities here and acclimating them here to want to stay here for the time it takes to become a partner and really move up the ranks at a law firm or any of the professional firms. Those are the kind of things we have to overcome, which is why a number of us got together as businesses to form the Greater Pittsburgh Diversity Festival (Aug. 16-19) to showcase the city broadly to as many people as we can and to try and get them to come into Pittsburgh.

Q: What's your management style in trying to advance diversity initiatives? .....

A: I just push people. I don't necessarily tell people what to do or dictate. But I just let them know that we haven't done enough. ... I'm unrelenting. That's why my mother said early on, "I think you're going to be a lawyer. You don't give up. I've told you no and you just come back with argument after argument until you get either your way or a different outcome than what would have been the case."

Q: Do you ever get frustrated?

A: A little bit. But that just makes me more determined. Nothing comes without a struggle. If it's worth it, it's worth the struggle. And I know this is worth it. I know it's worth it because of the success my wife and I have had. I know it's worth it because of my colleagues who are very successful all around the city. It is worth it.

One of the things I have to educate myself in is that Generation Y or the Millennium Generation is different. They want things like quality of life. Quality of life when I was growing up was having a job. That's changed.


Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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