Before Scott Cooper chose a career in the law, he was ready to go out on the water and fly.

Cooper was accepted into the U.S. Navy’s flight program, but he failed the sight exam in one eye.

“I was either going out on the water or I wasn’t going,” Cooper said.

When the Navy didn’t pan out as a career, Cooper, the son of an anesthesiologist who served in the Army, was a liberal arts graduate mixing “fancy foofoo drinks” at a corporate restaurant in the Pittsburgh area before making a more serious go on his second try to get into law school. He landed in a city between two rivers to study law at Temple University School of Law (participating in moot court and law review), to practice law at Blank Rome and now to lead Philadelphia’s professional organization for lawyers.

Cooper is the 83rd chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and one of the youngest chancellors at the age of 44. During his speech as the incoming chancellor Tuesday, Cooper said he plans to expend much of his energy in the coming year on the future of law firms as “we chart a course for that future on that unseen shore.”

Even beyond the recession that has inflicted “savage cruelty … on our community, our profession and our clients,” Cooper pointed to an even greater threat to the current composition of the legal field. A British regulatory liberalization will allow private equity investment in the ownership of law firms starting in 2012. Law firms will be able to combine operations in multidisciplinary practices with other professions like insurers, real estate agents and accountants. In his speech, Cooper focused on the potential threat those changes pose to the legal profession in the United States.

Cooper said that when he attended a meeting in London, British lawyers told him after a few pints that allowing multidisciplinary practices, as well as private investment, in law firms is key to the United Kingdom’s efforts to replace the United States at the center of legal involvement in global commerce.

While not drawing conclusions on whether the Pennsylvania bar should embrace multidisciplinary practices, resist them or strive for a middle way regarding this new model for the legal profession, Cooper wants to place the Philadelphia Bar Association at the center of planning for the future.

Cooper acknowledged in an interview that the bar association is not as central to the Philadelphia legal community as it was years ago. Cooper said the bar association used to be more central because it had a monopoly on access to local governmental officials and on continuing legal education. Cooper, a partner since the age of 33 in Blank Rome’s labor, employment and benefits practice group, said he wants to plug the association back in as the central power source of the Philadelphia legal community.

If a firm’s Philadelphia lawyers contribute only a small percentage of a firm’s billable hours, the bar association won’t be very important to them, Cooper said. But for most Philadelphia firms, he said, there is “still an added value of being plugged into your local community and association.”

Cooper said he plans to convene a series of separate meetings with the top leaders from a wide variety of firms with different client bases “to give 100 minutes of their time” about the future of lawyers in Philadelphia and what role the bar association can play as the field potentially changes from a closed-shop partnership model.

Cooper said in his speech that the bar also should be a partner in trying to position Philadelphia as an international center for arbitrations and other interstate business disputes.

In further efforts to look to the future, Cooper will establish a “green ribbon panel” to address how the bar association as an organization can reduce waste and its carbon footprint. The panel also will set voluntary standards with separate measuring sticks based on firm size for legal practices’ environmental practices.

Cooper also announced his appointment of Scott Reid, the diversity partner at Cozen O’Connor, to a bar association cabinet-level appointment to guide the bar association’s efforts on diversifying the legal profession. In an interview two weeks before his speech, Cooper said that he asked Reid to reassess the bar association’s work on getting more access for minorities to the legal profession, including reassessing the job description for the staff member the bar association dedicates to that work. The bar association’s first diversity director, Sean Lincoln, departed earlier this fall.

Cooper said Reid is someone he goes way back with and someone who is well respected in the Philadelphia bar.

“I want to be surrounded by people who are going to tell me what I need to hear rather than what I want to hear,” Cooper said. “And he’s going to tell me like it is.”

Cooper also announced his appointment Tuesday of Lou Rulli, a former director of Community Legal Services who is currently a clinical instructor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as a “pro bono and delivery of legal services czar.”

Cooper said he first got involved in the bar association because the bar association meant a lot to Cooper’s mentor, the late U.S. District Judge Herbert J. Hutton. And Cooper stayed involved with the bar association because of the “long heritage” of bar service at Blank Rome.

Cooper has been working his way eastward since his birth. He was born in Hawaii when his father was based there. Cooper grew up outside Denver. Cooper went to a large high school with a student body approaching 4,000. He knew that he didn’t want to go to a big university. So he made his way east, studying at Vassar College after the school went coed.

Cooper spent his college weekends in a van going to speech and debate competitions. Cooper said his alma mater’s liberal arts, multidisciplinary approach to thinking still informs how he thinks.

Cooper met his wife, Karen, while studying for the bar exam. They have two children.

While Cooper said the bar association is his single, biggest passion outside of his family and his law practice, he has to admit the highlight of his week is his “old guys” indoor soccer team. With his team in attendance on Tuesday, Cooper said he was looking forward to their game later this week.

Bar Awards

In addition to Cooper’s speech, there were several awards handed out during the luncheon. Receiving awards on Tuesday were André Dennis, a partner at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, who received the second annual Chancellor’s Diversity Award; Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Annette M. Rizzo, who received the Justice William J. Brennan Jr. Distinguished Jurist Award; and Joseph A. Sullivan, special counsel and director of pro bono programs at Pepper Hamilton, who received the 2009 Wachovia Fidelity Award. •