MSC Member Spotlight: Steptoe & Johnson

We recently spoke with Steptoe & Johnson’s Kristian White and Britt Freund to learn about the firm and how it serves the oil and gas industry. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. To start, could you give a brief introduction to Steptoe & Johnson and your work?

Kristian: Steptoe & Johnson is a multi-service law firm founded in 1913.  The firm has four core strengths, Labor and Employment, Litigation, Transactional and Commercial law, and Energy law.  In fact, the firm has been ranked top in the nation in energy law for the last four years by the authors of The Best Lawyers in America. We’re in six states with 14 offices in Colorado, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia. Initially, our energy practice that brought us to Pennsylvania, however, the Southpointe office is one of the fastest growing offices in the firm and now serves a number of industries outside of energy.

I’ve been with the firm for over 20 years now, starting in Bridgeport, West Virginia for two and a half years, then Wheeling, and now Southpointe for nine years. My practice is predominantly real estate transactions, so I work with oil and gas, midstream, and coal companies as they are acquiring real estate for their various needs. 

Britt: I am somewhat new to the firm; I joined about 18 months ago. What attracted me to the firm was its energy practice. I’ve spent my entire career in the energy development space, and primarily of late in oil and gas and even more specifically with the shale boom, the Marcellus and Utica. 

Q. What does it mean to be a full-service office?

Kristian: It means that our clients can do one-stop shopping. We want to service all our clients’ legal needs whether it’s a due-diligence project or labor negotiations or employment agreements or purchase of assets — we want to be able to handle all the needs of our clients.

Britt: We have a prolific oil and gas title practice, or rather a mineral title practice. We get involved in very large due diligence projects, as well as financial transactions and mineral assets. We have a great litigation department, so when litigation arises, which it unfortunately does, it involves the assets for a lot of our companies we represent. For example, we have a good team of people who have substantive knowledge in the space dealing with mineral extraction but are also top-notch litigators who are very respected.

I would say the same about our environmental practice.  We have some of the best environmental lawyers in the Appalachian Basin. We also have a good regulatory practice both working in the local regulatory space and with the federal regulations. Then, we have my own practice group which is energy transactions. I think we have the best transaction firm in the region, and when I say region, I mean West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia which is where we are most prominent. We also have an office in Colorado, as well as an office in Houston. 

Q. When Steptoe was founded 106 years ago, was it primarily an energy focused firm then, or has energy become a bigger and bigger part of the practice?

Kristian: Phillip Steptoe and Louis Johnson founded the firm in 1913 because of the coal, oil and gas activity in the region. Our firm has been within the energy industry right out of the gate, growing as the industry grew. In particular, when the Marcellus and Utica shale took off, a lot of companies who had not operated in the Basin came to the region and got acquainted with our services and engaged us, and we continued to grow in order to service the needs of our existing clients and this new client base that came to the region. 

Britt: One of our core areas of practice is in the labor and employment space, and I think that is a great area of practice for us still today. For example, my clients, who tend to be the upstream producers, have labor and employment issues that I don’t necessarily touch, but it’s great to have that prolific practice within the firm that we can refer them to and who we can trust to handle those issues.

It really is a privilege to work in this space now. It’s just tremendous what our energy clients are doing and it’s a blessing to be a part of that. I will add that my partners at this firm are top notch, great people. I get to work with good people doing what I consider to be important work.

Q. What do you think sets Steptoe apart from your peers in this area?

Kristian: We take a team approach to everything we do. While we have 14 offices, we’re truly one firm. Every Monday Britt and I are on a conference call with representatives from most of those offices and we’re talking about projects and how we’re going to best staff and meet the needs of our clients in a timely fashion. Many of our attorneys spent decades in the energy industry before joining our firm.  Their years of experience allows the firm to better understand the needs of our clients.  This experience allows us to tailor our practices to meet the needs of the industry and helps us to provide real-world solutions to our clients

Britt: The practice of law is incredibly specialized today, and none of us can “do it all.” Even with a niche space like upstream oil and gas extraction, it still takes a team of specialists, and we have those throughout our offices. It’s one thing to have them, but it’s another thing to have them on the same page and working together. It’s particularly our leadership within the energy department that helps us all move in the same direction. I know our clients really appreciate that, and we try to deliver these services at a very reasonable cost to the client.

Q. What do you see as the value of being a member of trade associations like MSC?

Kristian: First and foremost, that’s where our clients interact and that’s where we can meet with them and hear their concerns about what’s going on in the industry and where the trends are. It enables us to keep our finger on the pulse. 

Britt: It allows us to partner with our clients in a unified front. There’s a lot of opposition out there, and I would say that there’s a lack of knowledge about who we are as an energy industry, particularly on the production side, and organizations like the MSC allow for us to pool resources allowing us to deliver a unified and accurate message on who we are and what we do. The other aspect is our ability to keep up to date with issues, be it legal or business issues that affect our clients. 

Q. If there was one thing that you’d want to tell a neighbor, friend, or someone who’s generally not part of the industry, what would that be?

Britt: I think that in many ways there’s a lack of understanding about who the people are that are behind the corporations, especially the people who are out there doing the mineral development, for example the oil and gas production in this region. What I tell my friends and family that are under that misunderstanding is that I work with these people and I know how much they care about their communities.  By and large, the work being done is being done by people who live here. Many friends in that space that are running these companies are avid outdoorsmen and care immensely about the environment and their communities. 

Kristian: I think it’s important to stress to those outside the industry that we have such a great quality of life due to the affordable energy that’s provided by coal, oil and gas. Not all countries share the same quality of life that we have and many of the products that we touch are a product of the oil and gas industry, and I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that.

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