In a unique and somewhat unusual arrangement, 16 colleges across the U.S. have all agreed that just one law firm—West Virginia-based Steptoe & Johnson PLLC—will provide legal services to their institutions.
The Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), an Atlanta-based nonprofit that represents the interests of 16 liberal arts colleges across the southern U.S., decided that in an effort to drive down internal costs and streamline best practices, the colleges would all use Steptoe & Johnson, according to a report by Inside Higher Ed.
The agreement came about rather serendipitously, explained Steptoe partner Jim Newberry Jr., head of the firm’s higher education practice and a former mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. In January 2016, Newberry had a chance encounter with Yale Law School graduate and current ACS president R. Owen Williams at The Counsel of Independent Colleges’ Presidents Institute, the largest annual meeting of college and university presidents.
“[Williams] explained to me that the ACS members were interested in the possibility of some collaborative effort to purchase legal services,” Newberry said.
After several phone calls and meetings throughout the year, Steptoe responded to a request for proposal from ACS and was selected over several other firms to represent the organization, whose membership includes Spelman College and Washington and Lee University.
“The real art of making this work was coming up with an arrangement that had the level of flexibility necessary for the varying interests of the ACS members,” said Newberry (pictured right), adding that the firm’s representation and responsibilities will vary from institution to institution.
Some colleges and universities in the ACS already have in-house legal departments and strong connections with outside law firms. Some don’t have either. Steptoe’s engagement with each of ACS’ member institutions will therefore vary, based on the legal needs of a certain college. In some instances, Steptoe will collaborate with in-house lawyers, as well as other outside counsel to help solve whatever legal issue an ACS member is facing.
“What we were able to do is craft a combination of options where institutions could engage us in a variety of ways, from not engaging us at all if they don’t have a need to a situation where [they] could engage us for the most complex matter in a cost effective fashion,” Newberry said.
ACS members are able to come to Steptoe for periodic counsel, or as matters arise, as any client traditionally would. However, with the latter option, Newberry said the firm will offer “an attractive rate” to an institution for being a member of ACS. (Newberry declined to discuss the amount of that discount or the firm’s rates.)
In addition to counseling on projects, Newberry said that Steptoe will also offer an educational component where the firm’s lawyers will provide seminars and updates to ACS members on legal issues pertaining to higher education.
“The goal is to help them avoid problems to the fullest extent they can and in some instances meet federal requirements,” Newberry said.
Among the types of legal issues that Steptoe will be helping ACS members address are the evolution of Title IX cases, an area of increased focus and competition by a variety of law firms offering their services to educational clients. Just this week, New York-based litigation boutique Nesenoff & Miltenberg opened an office in Boston to expand its Title IX expertise to clients, while other large firms operating in the space including Cozen O’Connor, Holland & Knight and Saul Ewing.
As it happens, the 305-lawyer Steptoe & Johnson has somewhat of a history with large firms, including one with which it shares a name. Steptoe & Johnson LLP came in at No. 94 on the most recent Am Law 100 list, with the 373-lawyer firm taking in $356 million in gross revenue last year.
The two Steptoes began as one in 1913 when Philip Steptoe and Louis Johnson joined forces to start a law practice in Clarksburg, West Virginia. By historical accounts, Steptoe was the quiet and analytical one, while Johnson was the politician. In 1917, Johnson was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates before joining the U.S. Army during World War I. Johnson was eventually made a colonel, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to serve as his deputy secretary of war in 1937.
Following the end of World War II, Johnson left the Roosevelt administration and opened in 1945 an office for Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C. However, in 1950, he was called back into public service at the behest of President Harry Truman, who appointed Johnson as his secretary of defense. As a result of Johnson’s political influence, Steptoe & Johnson’s office in the nation’s capital expanded quickly, advising clients in the aviation and railroad industries, as well as foreign companies whose assets had been seized during World War II.
But by 1980, Steptoe & Johnson found itself facing two different futures: One focused on international expansion emanating from its office in Washington, D.C., and another more localized, with national growth emanating from its roots in West Virginia. So that year the firm decided to amicably split itself in two, with both keeping the original name.
Hopefully ACS members will know the right firm to call.