Brewer has big plans for Steptoe & Johnson

MORGANTOWN -- Perhaps the most exciting thing for Susan Brewer about becoming the first female CEO of a large West Virginia law firm is the opportunity to expand her knowledge.

"It allows me to get involved in some things that haven't been as much a part of my law practice," she said. "It allows me to interact with people in other areas of the law practice. It will definitely give me a broader perspective on the different areas of law."

Brewer's new role as managing member of Steptoe & Johnson began on Jan. 15 after she served for nearly 29 years as a litigator specializing in professional liability defense at the firm.

She replaces Robert M. Steptoe Jr., who will continue his practice in the areas of labor and employment law and civil litigation.

And while Brewer's title from litigator to CEO changed overnight, the transition has been a yearlong process.

"It's been a slow and deliberate process," she said.

As for her goals for Steptoe & Johnson, Brewer has many.

She plans to continue work on a five-year strategic plan the firm put in place at the end of 2007.

Other goals include continuing to have a strong focus on professional development and client relationships.

To Brewer and her colleagues at Steptoe & Johnson, it is also very important to have a great place to work.

To accomplish the task, teamwork is emphasized.

"Everyone likes to work together," she said. "We don't have a lot of hierarchy and that makes for a happier group of people. We pride ourselves on flexibility and adaptability."

And their emphasis on obtaining a positive workplace shows.

The National Law Journal presented Steptoe & Johnson an award for one of America's best places to work with a law degree.

The number of people that Steptoe & Johnson retain is another sign of its excellent work environment, Brewer said.

When Brewer began working at the firm in 1980, directly after she earned her law degree from George Mason, she joined four other people in a staff. All are still at Steptoe & Johnson except for one who became a federal judge.

Because of the amount of time she has spent at the firm, Brewer has gotten to know many of its 484 staff and lawyers. That should be to her advantage as she assumes her new role.

"I've spent my entire career here, so I have the benefit of knowing everyone very well," she said. "I've grown up in this firm with these people. I know their strengths and weaknesses, which I think gives me an advantage."

Being a female in a leadership role poses no different challenges than what a man would face in the same role, Brewer said.

Although everyone brings his or her own approach and perspective to the role, women may bring different approaches to the job, Brewer said.

For example, women tend to have strong organizational skills.

"It's just a little bit of a different approach than men," she said. "I wouldn't say it's a better approach, just a different approach."

While Brewer says she's "just one of the CEOs," she is pleased to see more women in leadership positions.

"I think that it's wonderful to hopefully be somewhat of a role model for younger women," she said. "I think we're going to see more and more women in leadership positions."

Brewer has served as a managing member of the Morgantown office for nearly 20 years and has served as a member of the firm's executive committee for 16 years.

Brewer moved to Morgantown in 1980 with her husband, Bill, after the couple graduated from law school where they met.

Bill had gone to WVU and wanted to return to Morgantown, and Brewer quickly agreed.

"I wanted to live in a nice, more rural community where I could raise a family," she said.

Together, she and Bill have four children, who are 25, 22, 19 and 16.

Before completing law school and settling in Morgantown, Brewer received her bachelor's degree in 1976 from Duke.

She grew up in Arlington, Va., where she graduated from high school in 1972.

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