A Better Person
Jason Steed on making time to lend a helping hand
Published in 2018 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 12, 2018
Jason Steed loved being an English professor. But when the geographic limitations of the academic job market left him frustrated, he changed course.
It wasn’t as sharp a detour as one might think. As a literature instructor, he parsed the language. In appellate law, he says, “you do what literature professors do—except with statutes and contracts, not poems and short stories.”
He also does pro bono work—a lot of it. At least 200 hours annually, and one year he hit the 500-hour mark. How does he do it? “I work a lot,” he says with a laugh.
His pro bono cases have ranged from same-sex marriage and divorce issues to immigration and criminal justice. He’s represented prisoners battling for health care and ex-prisoners seeking to expunge criminal records. In 2015, he made an offer to assist Syrian refugees after Gov. Greg Abbott tried to bar their entry into the state.
And early last year, Steed, 46, with Dallas’ Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, helped organize the army of pro bono lawyers, calling themselves DFW Detained, who showed up at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to help those caught up in the initial travel ban imposed by President Trump on several Muslim countries.
“As a Mormon, I’m part of a religious people that has its own history of being driven from their homes and targeted with social and legal discrimination,” Steed says. “Our law and legal system was underdeveloped and failed to protect the Mormons in the 1800s, but it can protect minority groups now—if good lawyers get involved to help.”
Born in Ogden, Utah, Steed had barely started elementary school when his family moved to rural Oregon. The oldest of six (now eight) kids, he was a spiky-haired skate punk who listened to the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys.
The self-described nerd skipped seventh grade and was called “the fetus” in high school because he was small for his age. As he graduated in 1989, the sensibilities of a Pacific Northwest upbringing prompted thoughts of environmental law—but college would come after the two-year mission prescribed by his Mormon faith. He grew to enjoy writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Wordsworth in his spare time; when he returned, he decided to major in English.
Steed earned his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University, where he met future wife Michele, drove “a groovy 1972 VW bus” and rock-climbed nearly every day. He went on to get his master’s in creative writing, then a doctorate in American literature.
Thoughts of law school returned as the realities of the academic job market set in. With a wife and three kids to support, he declined an offer from Yeshiva University, located in pricey New York City. As he wrote in his Twitter bio: “Problem with academia: You can’t choose where to live. Gotta go wherever you get a job.”
Friends who’d gone to law school told him he would love it. At the University of Texas School of Law, “I knew right away appellate practice was for me,” he wrote in his bio. “Interpreting texts, constructing arguments, writing briefs: my wheelhouse.”
It was as a first-year associate at Austin’s Akin Gump in 2010 that he was pulled into pro bono work by Jody Scheske, a partner who was lead counsel in a pair of divorce cases of same-sex couples who had married in Massachusetts. “The Texas attorney general was intervening to prevent that,” Steed says. “He was saying, ‘We don’t recognize your marriage in the first place, so we won’t grant the divorce.’ … We saw those cases as maybe a step toward recognizing same-sex marriage rights.”
By the time they reached the Texas Supreme Court in 2011, the cases had been consolidated. But the court delayed oral arguments, and years passed, and in April 2015 one of the men seeking divorce died, leading the court to dismiss that case as moot. The man never got the chance, Steed observes, to “finalize the divorce and move on.”
In June 2015, “we finally got a decision, basically right before Obergefell came out,” he says. The state Supreme Court sided with the procedural argument that Steed’s team had been making—that Texas’ attorney general lacked standing to intervene in a private divorce. It sidestepped the constitutional issue.
“It was great to be part of those cases,” Steed says. “We were out in front on the issue, but we got sidelined by the Texas Supreme Court.”
His first solo pro bono case resolved before that decision came in. It involved a disabled man denied Social Security benefits. Steed helped him appeal the decision. “We got that reversed, awarding him $80,000 in back benefits,” he says.
Both experiences were life-changing, he adds. “I’ve been involved in a bunch of pro bono stuff ever since. There are a lot of people out there who don’t get big lawyers because they can’t afford them. If there are cases where I feel I can help and they’re interesting, I will try.”
He also enjoys the change of pace. “Most of our cases are commercial litigation, like two businesses fighting with each other,” he says. “Without pro bono cases, it’s not like I would ever get to deal with criminal sentencing or constitutional issues.
“You become a better person helping people who need help, but you also become a better lawyer getting experience you might not have otherwise gotten.”
The love of words that drew Steed to both English literature and appellate law also brought him to social media. He took to Twitter in 2010, at first simply sharing legal news and writings with little commentary. Now, he has built a professional network around #AppellateTwitter, which he coined.
“There’ll be someone in New York saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a case in Texas; is there anything I need to know about how oral argument works in the Texas Court of Appeals?’” he says.
His posts took on a political component as candidate Trump waged his presidential campaign.
“There were things going on that I couldn’t not say anything about,” he says. One of his Twitter threads was highlighted by online news site Vox in August 2016—23 messages arguing that Trump’s “joke” appearing to advocate violence against a potential Clinton administration was more sinister than it seemed. “Nobody is ever ‘just joking,’” read one of the tweets by Steed, whose dissertation was on the social function of humor.
The thread drew attention beyond legal circles. “The retweets on that thread will flare up every six weeks or so,” Steed says. “Anytime some celebrity or public figure pops off with ‘just joking.’”