Steptoe & Johnson's Philip West
Steptoe & Johnson’s Philip West (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

As the new executive committee chairman of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, Philip West aims to sharpen the firm’s image and build key practice areas — but he’s on the fence about whether a merger makes sense.

The head of the firm’s tax group and a former top international tax lawyer at the U.S. Treasury Department, West took the helm of the 411-lawyer firm on Jan. 1 from Roger Warin, who led Steptoe for the past decade.

Last year, Steptoe talked to “three or four” firms about merging, West said, declining to name the would-be partners.

So how does West feel about merging? “It’s kind of like asking how do you feel about marriage,” he said. That is, he said, it only works if the right partner comes along — and the firm has yet to be swept off its feet.

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, W.Va. The Washington office split off in 1980, but both firms kept the name.

Steptoe’s profits per partner in 2012 were a respectable $980,000 — only about 10 percent lower than those at the largest firms such as Hogan Lovells and 10 percent higher than those at Jones Day and K&L Gates. The books for 2013 aren’t closed yet, but West said Steptoe hit its budget, with revenue and profits holding steady.

“We could spend all our time and effort trying to be a 3,000-lawyer firm and not increase our partner profitability,” he said. “Size is not a driver for me. … Growth of practices where we need a certain critical mass to properly handle our clients’ matters, that is something I’m focused on.” — Jenna Greene

SPENDING BILL PROVIDES RESPITE TO THE JUDICIARY

Congress plans to give some relief to the ­federal judiciary following last year’s budget cuts. A bipartisan spending bill that moved quickly on Capitol Hill — the Senate and House approved it last week — provides the federal courts an increase of $316 million in discretionary ­spending (5 percent above existing levels) for the 2014 ­fiscal year. That would almost erase the $350 ­million in budget cuts the judiciary took in March as part of sequestration. The cuts meant layoffs and ­furloughs in the federal courts and threatened the judiciary’s ability to pay court-appointed private counsel in criminal cases. “This is probably the minimum amount of funding the courts could really survive on this year, but it should at least stop the bleeding,” said Ian Koski, a spokesman for Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on bankruptcy and the courts. The bill sets funding for U.S. Supreme Court salaries and court operations such as courthouse security and the costs of other court operations, including federal defender offices. — Todd Ruger

THE ‘DUCK-TEST’ IN COURT

Nothing is certain but ducks and taxes. That’s how it goes, right? U.S. District Senior Judge Paul Friedman brought the two together in his Jan. 15 dismissal of a challenge to the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to make health insurance tax credits available in all states.

The plaintiffs — individuals and employers — argued that the Affordable Care Act limited the tax credits to residents of states that set up their own insurance exchanges. Friedman disagreed. He also found the employers lacked standing to sue, since they were challenging a tax assessed for not providing insurance to employees who qualified for the credits. (Federal law bars lawsuits challenging tax collection.)

The employers argued the penalty wasn’t a tax, but Friedman said the evidence indicated otherwise. “Whereas it looks like a duck, and whereas it walks like a duck, and whereas it quacks like a duck, and whereas it is called a duck by Congress on multiple occasions, the court therefore holds that it is a duck,” Friedman wrote, quoting from earlier appellate opinions in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. — Zoe Tillman

FISA JUDGES’ CONCERNS

For months, amid the debate over government surveillance programs and calls for reform, the judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have largely remained silent — save for an occasional statement to counter the notion the court blindly approves government requests for telecommunications and Internet records.

U.S. District Judge John Bates in Washington, a former chief of the FISA court, spoke up in a Jan. 10 letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee that highlighted concern among surveillance judges about certain proposed reforms. One idea that’s been floated — creating a privacy advocate in FISA proceedings to provide the secret, no-public-allowed court with information other than provided by U.S. Department of Justice lawyers. Bates said the participation of an advocate was “unnecessary — and could prove counterproductive.” Most FISA matters, he said, implicate privacy interests in a handful of people other than the surveillance target.

“Given the nature of FISA proceedings, the participation of an advocate would neither create a truly adversarial process nor constructively assist the court in assessing the facts,” Bates wrote. An advocate appointed at the discretion of the court, Bates said, “could be helpful.” — Mike Scarcella

REVIEWING FORENSIC SCIENCE

Call it “CSI: Real Life.” Judges, public defenders, prosecutors and law professors were among the 41 individuals recently selected to serve on the first National Commission on Forensic Science, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The group, selected from more than 300 candi­dates, will come up with guidelines concerning forensic science’s role in the criminal justice system and recommend policies to govern areas such as professional responsibility and training.

The commission includes Senior Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project; Julia Leighton, general counsel for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia; and John Kacavas, the U.S. attorney for New Hampshire. The commission will meet for the first time on Feb. 3 in Washington. — Zoe Tillman

‘YOU ARE NOT READING THIS?’

It was an excruciating moment at the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 14. A nervous first-time advocate began his argument by apparently reading from a prepared statement, until the never-shy Justice Antonin Scalia interrupted and asked: “Counsel, you are not reading this, are you?” The lawyer, Steven Lechner, froze and did not answer, staying silent until Justice Stephen Breyer broke the tension with these words: “It’s all right.”

The awkward episode came during arguments Jan. 14 in the case Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, a property rights dispute. Lechner is chief legal officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represented the property owner in the case.

As news of Scalia’s remark spread, commentators lined up on both sides. Cruel or not, Scalia’s disparagement of a lawyer who read his argument was not just a whim or personal pet peeve; it is based on the court’s own rules and traditions. Rule 28 states bluntly: “Oral argument read from a prepared text is not favored.” — Tony Mauro

BACK IN THE HIGH COURT

Patricia Millett has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit since Dec. 10. On Jan. 13, she was back at the U.S. Supreme Court, where she made her reputation as a skilled advocate before the justices.

But Millett’s oral advocacy days are now behind her; she was there to move the admission of Seattle lawyer Robert Porcarelli into the Supreme Court bar — a ritual that was scheduled before she was confirmed as a judge.

As she reached the lectern, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., leaned forward and said mischievously, “Judge Millett, not here to argue a case?” It was a rare gesture of familiarity.

Millett did not miss a beat and began, “Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the court.” Porcarelli, by the way, is corporate counsel at Starbucks Corp., which was a client of Millett’s at her former firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. After the admission, Millett lingered to watch the first argument, the landmark recess-appointment case on appeal from her own new court. — Tony Mauro

NEW FBI GENERAL COUNSEL

FBI Director James Comey Jr. turned to a former colleague from Bridgewater Associates L.P. and the George W. Bush administration to serve as the FBI’s general counsel, the bureau announced on Jan. 15.

James Baker joined the FBI after two years as associate general counsel at the investment firm, where Comey was general counsel from 2010 to 2013. From 1990 to 2007, Baker worked in the Justice Department, holding posts in the Criminal Division’s fraud section and the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. Baker succeeds Andrew Weissmann, who stepped down as general counsel in October after two years on the job. He is now teaching at the New York University School of Law. “It’s a fabulous office, and I think he’s going to do great,” said Weissmann, a former Jenner & Block partner. — Andrew Ramonas