New Chairman at Steptoe Eyes the Future

, Legal Times

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Steptoe & Johnson's Philip West
Steptoe & Johnson's Philip West

With just over 400 lawyers, Steptoe & Johnson LLP is neither large nor small, not wildly profitable or struggling to get by.

For new executive committee chairman Philip West, who took the helm Jan. 1, the question now is whether being in the middle is enough. Has Steptoe found the Goldilocks sweet spot between 4,000-lawyer behemoths and specialized boutiques, or is the market for legal services making such a model increasingly untenable?

It’s not that Steptoe doesn’t have options. Last year, the firm talked to "three or four" firms about merging, West said in a lengthy interview in Steptoe’s seventh-floor conference room overlooking a swath of downtown Washington near Dupont Circle. He declined to name the would-be partners.

When it comes to a merger, West said, "It’s kind of like asking how do you feel about marriage." That is, he said, it only works if the right partner comes along–and the firm has yet to be swept off its feet.

For West, the tax group leader and a former top international tax lawyer at the U.S. Treasury Department, the job now is to chart a course that sharpens Steptoe’s less-than-distinct brand and grows key practice areas including white collar and securities litigation, intellectual property, antitrust and lobbying. West succeeds Roger Warin, who led the firm for the past decade and oversaw the launch of new offices in New York City, Century City, Calif., Chicago and Beijing.

In many respects, Steptoe is a classic Washington firm, with strong regulatory and litigation practices–white-collar defender Reid Weingarten is the firm’s best-known lawyer–and a smaller corporate presence. Clients include Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility and the Chinese government.

"To some extent, there’s a little bit of a disconnect between who we are and how we’re perceived," West said. "I think we’re perceived as a great, high-quality, old-line firm, [but] I think the perception that we are on the cutting edge and need to be on everyone’s short list … I think we can do better."

To accomplish that, he points to marketing and public relations. "You make sure you’re visible at every point that you can be," he said. For the firm’s 148 equity partners, that means doing more than having "their heads down at their desks doing the good work they do for their clients," but also being "out there, with all of the opportunities there are, whether it’s traditional media outlets…or with new media outlets, social media outlets," he said. "Our perception in the marketplace needs to better align with who we are and how strong we are."

Steptoe’s brand image has one unique obstacle–there are actually two law firms called Steptoe & Johnson. The two offices were originally one, founded in the early 20th century in Clarksburg, WV. The Washington office split off in 1980, but both firms kept the name–a move that seems almost inexplicable in hindsight. The only difference is the firm in West Virginia, which has about 300 lawyers, is Steptoe & Johnson PLLC and the one in Washington is Steptoe & Johnson LLP.

"It’s a remnant of an earlier time that we are living with," West said. "Clearly, it’s not a non-issue." But there’s no easy fix. "What we have to evaluate is how big an issue is it, and what are the options for addressing it," he said.

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