Steptoe & Johnson names new chairman

Washington-based law firm Steptoe & Johnson has appointed a new chairman, tax attorney Phil West, the firm plans to announce today.

It is the first leadership change in 10 years at Steptoe, one of the largest law firms in the District with more than 300 attorneys locally. West took over Jan. 1, replacing Roger Warin, who has become chairman emeritus.

West has already initiated changes to the firm’s internal leadership structure that reflect growing pressures in the legal industry to protect profitability, as demand for legal services remains flat at best. He is spearheading the formation of a management committee that will oversee recruiting, budget matters, diversity, growth of practice groups and the firm’s international reach. And he is giving broader marching orders to the firm’s “strategic planning task force” — which previously had been in charge of just recruiting — to think about the firm’s strategic direction.

He also plans to do a review, possibly by an outside consultant, of the firm’s operations to identify what can be done to grow its business. West said he hopes the review will be completed within the next six months, and that the objective is not to identify places to cut, but rather how to grow revenue. The firm has done two such reviews under previous chairmen. The last one was in 2005.

“I don’t see a consultant coming in to advise us on the expense side,” West said. “I want their advice on the revenue side. I want them to work with us to make sure our clients are getting the full value from us, so they continue to come back and increase the amount of work we do for them.”

That may include potential changes to the way the firm charges its clients or, as the legal industry calls it, alternative fee arrangements that are not traditional hourly billing.

“How we manage and budget cases, and can we give clients prices that give them certainty and give us incentives on how to staff cases?” he said. “These issues are worth paying attention to.”

The firm will be closely examining its business development efforts and expenses, West said.

“We’re going be looking hard at our expenses and making sure we’re lean and in top fighting form,” he said. “We’re looking at every line item to make sure we’re spending our partners’ money wisely ... That means if we need to spend our business development dollars more wisely by reallocating them from a less productive activity to a more productive activity, we ought to be trying to do that.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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