Kate Cook's rise to chief legal counsel

Issue June 2013 By Kelsey Sadoff

On Jan. 4, 2013, Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick announced senior staff appointments on the eve of a new legislative session. Among the appointments, attorney Kate Cook was named the governor's chief legal counsel.

"Serving as the governor's chief legal counsel is a dream job for me," Cook said. "I am extremely honored and proud to serve the governor in this unique capacity."

Widely reported as the first woman to hold the high-ranking position of chief legal counsel in a Massachusetts governor's office, Cook has served the Patrick administration for more than five years, first as deputy legal counsel, then as the director of Policy and Cabinet Affairs and now as its chief attorney.

"I am continually inspired by the governor's compassion, integrity and intelligence," Cook said. "When it comes to those core principles lawyers embrace - equality, civil rights, civil liberties and doing the right thing - the governor is the real deal. He is such an inspiration and it's contagious for all of us lucky enough to work on his team."

The road to politics

Growing up in Arkansas, Cook knew she wanted to be an attorney at a young age.

"My mother sparked my interest in the law," Cook said. "She was one of the court-appointed juvenile defenders and made a career out of helping people, until she became a juvenile court judge - the first woman judge in Garland County, Arkansas. I grew up listening to her stories about her cases, her clients, her challenges and her joys … and I knew I wanted to be a lawyer too."

Cook's parents, who were college students in the late '60s in Stillwater, Oklahoma, were deeply inspired by the political climate in the United States at the time.

"It was impossible to grow up in my house and not be interested in politics," Cook said. "I can remember my parents complaining about Reagan's tax cuts and driving around Hot Springs, Arkansas with the only Mondale/Ferraro bumper sticker in town. We ate dinner together most every school night, cooked by my father. And over dinner [we] would talk about the news of the day, including public policy issues. My brother and I were encouraged and expected to have our own opinions and to participate in the discussion."

Cook was a sophomore in high school when she was on a school trip to Washington D.C. and heard Arkansas Sen. David H. Pryor's staff talk about his start in politics as a page. Cook was hooked. She applied for a position her junior year and served as a page for Arkansas Democratic Representative Beryl F. Anthony Jr., for a semester - getting to school at the crack of dawn so she could be on the floor of the House of Representatives when it opened.

Cook's early involvement in politics was no surprise to her parents.

"She was always curious," said Cook's mother, Judge Vicki Shaw Cook, who recognized the impact the D.C. trips had on her daughter. "We knew we had lost her to the East Coast."

Cook, who went on to study at Brown University, spent a summer in college interning at the Clinton White House during the 1996 re-election campaign, before entering Harvard Law School in 1998.

"In law school I geeked out a bit on local government and administrative law, and I have been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to mesh my intellectual and political passions through my career." Cook said. "I can still remember the day my administrative law professor, David Barron, cracked open David McCullough's Truman to guide our discussion about the Youngstown Steel Seizure issue that brought the three branches of government to a head during the Korean War. It's a great case for thinking about separation of powers and executive powers in particular. We poured over Justice Jackson's amazing concurring opinion that describes the spectrum of executive power, and what is meant by Jackson's reference to a "zone of twilight" in which the Executive and Legislative branches may have "concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain." For me, that decision, and classroom discussion, made the constitution come alive in an entirely new way. And there was another lesson Professor Barron made sure we understood when studying this case. After the Supreme Court rejected Truman's right to seize the steel mill, the president and justices had a drink. There's an important nugget there regarding good sportsmanship. I think in law and politics, once you've fought the good fight, it's critical to be able to shake hands and agree to disagree sometimes and move on."

Public passions

Cook, who came to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law School, never expected to stay, but fell in love with the commonwealth over the course of law school.

"I tell law students and new lawyers whenever I can, that Massachusetts is a wonderful place to live and work - especially if you are a lawyer," Cook said. For someone like me, from a small town in Arkansas, the collegial and close-knit legal community gives the area a small-town feel. I'm always amazed by the shared commitment to providing pro bono services across the Massachusetts bar."

While at Harvard, Cook participated in Professor Charles Ogletree's criminal justice clinical and was SJC Rule 3:03 certified - allowing her to represent low-income defendants in Dorchester Juvenile Court and Roxbury District Court. This gave her an introduction to the courtroom, advocacy and Boston's legal community.

"Like so many attorneys, I went to law school to help people," Cook said.

After graduation, Cook clerked for two years with the Hon. U.S. District Judge Morris E. Lasker. After clerking, Cook turned down a law firm offer to serve as assistant corporation counsel to the City of Boston, before taking a deputy legal counsel position in the Patrick Administration - working on budget and legislative matters - some of the most difficult and complex issues in the governor's office. In 2010, Cook took a general counsel position at the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways and Means before returning to the Patrick administration a year later as the director of Policy and Cabinet Affairs.

"Before graduating from law school, I had many customer service jobs, from making sandwiches at Subway to the front desk clerk at the Hilton, and I learned some of the best lessons in those jobs," Cook said. "So much in life comes down to treating people with respect, building relationships and creatively finding solutions to problems presented. The years I spent in the courtroom as assistant corporation counsel to the City of Boston and my time as general counsel to the Senate Ways and Means Committee required me to make difficult judgment calls quickly and to present complex legal and policy arguments succinctly to judges, city employees and senators."

In addition to her professional commitments, Cook further connected herself to the Massachusetts legislative process post-Harvard by serving on the Women's Bar Association Board, the WBA Legislative Policy Committee and the National Abortion Rights Action League Board and political committee. Cook continues to serve on the Women's Bar Foundation board and is immediate past president of the foundation, which connects poor women and families to legal representation. A Massachusetts Bar Foundation fellow, the philanthropic partner of the Massachusetts Bar Association, Cook is also a longtime and active member of Boston's Ward Five Democratic Committee and a regular volunteer at the Women's Lunch Place.

"I have seen [Kate] grow from an eager young law student to a dynamic and driven senior public official," said U.S. Senator William M. Cowan, who has known Cook since she was a summer associate at Mintz Levin, while at Harvard Law.

Taking a seat at the table

Medical marijuana. Boston Marathon bombings. Small business regulations. Judicial appointments. CORI reform. As the governor's chief legal counsel, Cook faces a wide range of legal issues on a daily basis and never has a "typical" day.

"She is the best kind of lawyer in that she understands that the law is a tool," said Cowan. He believes Cook always has her eye on the larger picture, knows the "devil is in the details" and is always able to give the best reasoned, well-rounded, and always correct interpretation of the legal issues in play to the governor.

Cook, who feels "truly blessed" to have had wonderful mentors throughout her life, has crossed paths with Cowan throughout her entire career, until he was ultimately her boss within the Patrick Administration.

"Mo has taught me many things. Among them, he has always encouraged me to make my voice heard. A few years ago when he was chief of staff to the governor and I was new to the governor's senior team working as director of Policy and Cabinet Affairs, we had gone to the governor's office for a meeting and I opted for a chair not at the table, but around the perimeter," Cook said. "After the meeting, Mo whispered in my ear, 'if there is an empty chair at the governor's table, I don't ever want to see you pass it up to sit on the sidelines.' I have to admit that sometimes I still have to remind myself of that when I walk into the governor's office."

As the governor's chief legal counsel, Cook leads a team of attorneys, who are collectively responsible for a wide range of legal issues in the areas of public safety, education, health and human services, state finance, housing, transportation, energy and environmental affairs, labor and workforce development, as well as working with the Judicial Nominating Commission.

"Kate is wicked smart, unflappable and has a true moral rudder, all of which are helpful in any good lawyer, but essential in her current post," Patrick said. "She also gets along with everybody and takes everybody as she comes."

"Kate brings a strong desire to ensure Gov. Patrick's goals are achieved, and she comes to work every day with unparalleled enthusiasm and energy. Importantly, because of her background as the governor's director of Policy and Cabinet Affairs, she appreciates and understands the relationship between law and policy and how one informs the other. She has experience in important roles in both state and city government," said Nicholas P. Martinelli, Cook's deputy chief counsel. "She has an extraordinary work ethic and she takes a personal interest in the issues and in ensuring we do the best job we can do. She has a down-to-earth sensibility and - perhaps most importantly -  she has a can-do attitude."

In the fast-paced environment at the Office of the Legal Counsel, Cook stays grounded through family and running.

"Running for me is such a fine metaphor for life - you apply hard work and discipline and it pays off. You still might have a bad patch, but you keep putting one foot in front of the other, and the bad patch passes," said Cook, who has run 15 marathons and a few ultramarathons. "For me, running is truly my time for meditation, working through issues and discovery."

"She listens and observes well, which allows her to understand the full-range of legal issues," said Cowan, of Cook's strengths as a chief legal counsel. "She brings realism to her work."

Cook's number one goal as the governor's chief counsel is to make sure there are no vacancies in the judiciary by the end of Patrick's term in 2015.

Using a running saying, Cook notes that "the governor is sprinting to the finish line of his second term. The Patrick administration has a tried-and-true method for job creation and economic development: investing in innovation, infrastructure and education. We will continue pushing in these three areas until the last hour of the last day," Cook said. "In the judicial arena, the governor intends to fill every judicial and clerk-magistrate vacancy. The Joint Bar Committee is such a valuable resource, representing a cross-section of the bar from around the commonwealth. I appreciate their volunteer efforts, and value the administration's excellent working relationship with Marty Healy and the JBC Chair Carol Starkey.

"Kate, as chief legal counsel, has joined an exclusive, small coterie of the state's top lawyers who are privileged to work directly with the governor on extremely sensitive and challenging issues," said Martin W. Healy, the MBA's chief legal counsel and chief operating officer. "There is a history of great accomplishments from this distinguished group. You can quickly grasp Kate's keen intellect and approachable style when engaging her on an issue. The bar is very fortunate to have her in this position, at the forefront of legal issues affecting the practice of law and the administration of justice."

Cook is proud to have been part of the Patrick administration for over half a decade.

"I have been very fortunate in that I have loved every job I have had as an attorney, each one more than the one before," Cook said. "And with all my different roles, I've had the privilege of working with smart, dedicated people. Serving as chief legal counsel is challenging, fulfilling and fastpaced, and I can't imagine the next gig will be as great as this one."