View from the Top

How Susan Brewer landed at the helm of a major law firm

Published in 2011 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine

Two years ago, Susan Brewer became the first woman to pilot a major West Virginia law firm. Had she listened to her attorney-dad’s advice as a child, she might not have gone into law in the first place.

“In Arlington, there were only two female lawyers, and he didn’t like either one of them,” says Brewer, who directs 205 attorneys in 10 offices since taking the helm as CEO of Steptoe & Johnson in 2009. “I can just remember, at the dinner table, him saying, ‘Women shouldn’t be lawyers.’”

Her mother and grandmother, both homemakers, didn’t agree. They encouraged Brewer and her sister to pursue careers. “They taught me that there were no roadblocks,” Brewer says. “The only roadblocks that were there were going to be ones that you let fall into your path, and you just step over them and go on.”

Brewer stepped over her father’s words and into his office, where he was fine with her working summer breaks and holidays. “He had a small firm, and so whenever someone was on vacation or the receptionist was gone, or the bookkeeper was gone, I would sub in for them,” Brewer says. “I learned how the law firm operated; I learned how to do legal pleadings. They taught me how to do legal research. … They would take me to court with them. I was really very lucky.”

Brewer told her dad she was applying to law schools. “All of a sudden: ‘Women should be lawyers,’” she says, laughing.

Two weeks after graduating from George Mason University School of Law, Brewer became Steptoe & Johnson’s third female attorney. She started at the firm’s Clarksburg office, then moved to the Morgantown office when it opened eight years later. The firm’s atmosphere suited her. “People get along very well, help each other out, put their heads together on things,” says Brewer, 56. “That kind of congeniality is what has kept me here all these years. It’s like a family.”

She thrived in a busy litigation practice under managing partner Bob Steptoe’s wing. Brewer calls him “a very strong practitioner with good courtroom skills and good client skills. And that’s what I wanted to emulate. I wanted to be in the courtroom.”

A few years in, she was climbing the state Supreme Court of Appeals steps on behalf of a client, an attorney who couldn’t get licensed in West Virginia because she lived just across the Ohio line. With the partner who hired her client, Brewer fought the West Virginia Board of Law Examiners over granting the license, prevailing at the state’s high court.

“I was a young lawyer,” says Brewer, “and it was a little nerve-wracking because it was such an important case.” The decision pushed West Virginia to join the trend of other states easing their licensing rules. “The lawyer that I represented is now a judge in Ohio. And the lawyer who hired her is a federal judge in Wheeling,” says Brewer.

Brewer’s practice grew. The firm expanded. She helped steer the executive committee for 16 years, and was elected in 2008 to become CEO. After a yearlong transition period, she took the reins from Bob Steptoe.

“It’s very humbling to know that people would put that confidence in me,” Brewer says.

As the big boss, her caseload is smaller. She defends professionals against high-stakes allegations of negligence. “Anybody that’s ever been sued would tell you that it’s a very lonely position to be in, and you need an advocate, no matter who you are,” Brewer says.

Otherwise, she’s traveling among four states, troubleshooting and goal-setting with firm leadership. “We’ve kept moving, despite the economy,” Brewer says. “We decided among ourselves that we were going to continue with our expansion.”

Now she encourages other young attorneys to further their careers. For other women step-takers, she believes the horizon is near. “I think that, going forward, there will be more and more women in leadership roles,” she says. “All the way up to CEO.”

After she became CEO, one of her congratulatory calls came from an unfamiliar voice in Michigan.

“She said she had read about me and that she was interested in getting into firm leadership, but she wasn’t sure how to go about it,” says Brewer.

She advised the fledgling attorney to do what she had done—prove to the partners that she was invested in the firm by initiating projects, joining committees and volunteering. The key: Differentiate yourself, Brewer said. “And that differentiation has to come about through hard work, dedication … putting others before yourself—giving everyone else the credit. Those types of things build trust and dedication to each other, and that’s what you’re looking for if you want to become a leader in any organization.”

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