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Ken Turchi
IU Maurer School of Law

Last modified: Tuesday, April 26, 2011

King and Spalding withdrawal from DOMA defense shows large firm risk aversion: IU Maurer School of Law expert

April 26, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Monday's decision by the 800-lawyer King & Spalding firm to drop its defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) suggests that major U.S. law firms are risk-averse and care more about revenue than upholding the traditional norms of the legal profession, according to an IU Maurer School of Law expert on legal ethics.

John Steele

John Steele

"The firm was facing an ongoing public relations embarrassment that would have hurt its recruiting from elite law schools," said John Steele, visiting professor of law. "In addition, a threatened boycott would have focused on some of the firm's clients -- the ones that cater to consumers and that are active in diversity matters. For all the power they wield, major U.S. firms are quite sensitive to those sorts of pressures.

"At what point do large law firms embrace the notion that everyone deserves a lawyer and that we should not attack lawyers for their choice of clients? One suspects that as a result of this controversy, large law firms will be even more hesitant to take on controversial representations," Steele said.

"And it's just a fact of life -- one I'm not necessarily defending or criticizing -- that elite U.S. law firms are more comfortable with controversial representations that are center-left in the political spectrum. DOMA is deeply unpopular in law schools, a fact not lost on the firm's recruiters," he added.

Steele also discussed the numerous conflict-of-interest restrictions placed on King & Spalding by its client, the U.S. House of Representatives. (The House hired the firm after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would no longer defend the statute.) But he cautioned against reading too much into the restrictions.

"In my experience, the government's conflicts rules can be unusually broad and divorced from reality," he noted. "The restrictions in this case might track what some slightly over-cautious bureaucrat once drafted and have now become boilerplate." As a result, he suggested, "The animus behind the restriction may not have been wicked or mean-spirited, but just the ordinary banality of a bureaucrat."

A well-known expert on legal ethics, Steele has taught the subject for 25 semesters at leading American law schools, including the IU Maurer School of Law, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley. For more than 15 years, he served as the top internal ethics lawyer at an AmLaw 100 and an AmLaw 200 law firm, and as the firm's hiring partner. Steele represents clients on matters of legal ethics, professional liability, risk management, and the law of lawyering. He can be reached at,or at 650-320-7662.