Higher Education


For decades, institutions of higher education have depended on Steptoe & Johnson to help them navigate a swiftly changing educational landscape by designing policies and processes that serve to expand opportunities and minimize risk. When we work with an educational institution, we apply our broad and diverse experiences to enhance their strategic position. While we offer experience in addressing and remediating active legal matters, we also provide proactive, long-range guidance. Our goal is to help clients avoid the courthouse, when possible.

Download Service Brochure (PDF)


Founded in 1913, as energy and commodity markets were experiencing explosive growth in the U.S., Steptoe & Johnson quickly gained a national reputation in the fields of banking, insurance, litigation, mineral, oil and gas, and public utility law. A central ingredient in the early rise of the firm to national prominence was a strong relationship between founding partner Louis Johnson and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

From its auspicious beginnings, the firm developed broadly recognized practices in higher education, energy, finance, real estate, health care, labor and employment, and litigation. Over the last century, Steptoe & Johnson has served national and state government leaders, industry leaders, and some of the largest and most influential international corporations in the world. Today, the firm has 18 offices and more than 370 lawyers and professionals serving clients across the U.S.


To best serve our clients, we have built a team that can draw from an array of perspectives and experiences. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team includes individuals who have:

  1. Served as academic administrators and faculty
  2. Worked at all levels of government, including national, state, and local
  3. Led public policy initiatives
  4. Served as board members of educational institutions and non-profit organizations

Our attorneys are frequently featured at national and international conferences, offering guidance on issues affecting educational institutions, and have authored some of the most widely recognized titles on higher education law.

In addition to such professional experiences, our attorneys are experienced in advising educational institutions in a number of important areas note below.

Business Operations

The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team brings the experience and appreciation for the nuances of campus culture and regulatory frameworks that shape the business of operating a college or university. Our attorneys work with institutions, executive leaders, and boards to help them navigate and address a variety of complex issues, including evaluating insurance coverage and crafting partnership agreements, advising on issues related to distance learning, governance, or institutional finances. Our attorneys have:

  • Participated with college leadership in the development of a five-year strategy to disassociate an institution from denominational affiliation
  • Reviewed, revised, and negotiated lease contracts between private higher education institutions and tenants
  • Developed governing documents for a higher education institution to operate an off-campus pharmacy
  • Established a separate real estate foundation to protect the endowed assets of another foundation affiliated with a public university
  • Routinely assisted presidents, chief academic officers, and chief financial officers in revising and implementing policies and procedures to promote more effective business operations
  • Advised university on compliance with AAUP guidance and employee handbook with respect to tenure decisions and faculty dismissals during financial exigency
  • Reviewed and revised institution policies including faculty and student handbooks, for universities across the U.S.

Title IX & Other Anti-Discrimination Claims

In recent years, campuses across the country have witnessed a dramatic rise in claims of discrimination and harassment by students and employees. We partner with institutions to craft policies, offer trainings and create safeguards aimed at the prevention of such events. When claims of discrimination or harassment do arise, our attorneys offer both a sensitivity to the nature of such matters and experience in helping institutions navigate through all phases of the investigation and resolution of such matters. Steptoe attorneys understand the investment that each academic institution makes in its students and workforce, and it seeks to partner in helping to proactively protect the health and safety of campus communities. Our attorneys have:

  • Represented a higher education institution in claims in all types of discrimination claims in front of the United States Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights, the EEOC, and the state civil rights commissions
  • Drafted sexual misconduct policies to comply with Title IX guidelines and provided training to Title IX Coordinators, investigative teams, and hearing panels at universities across the U.S.
  • Counseled higher education institutions related to a variety of employment discrimination issues, including the ADA, Title IV, and the human/civil rights acts of various states

Student Affairs

Central to the higher education experience is the cultivation of robust community life, including clubs, fraternal associations, student governance, athletics, service-learning opportunities, and travel study programs. The community created on a college campus offers a unique and valuable learning environment, but it is also complex. We work with institutions to ensure that the campus environment is intentionally structured to advance the interests of students and their safety.

Our attorneys develop effective student handbooks and conduct codes and design effective disciplinary processes. We also work with administrators, staff, and faculty to provide guidance and training, so that they can function as effective student advocates. Our attorneys have:

  • Defended a higher education institution against claims by the former student relating to disciplinary action
  • Advised a faith-based higher education institution on the newly enacted portion of the Pennsylvania criminal code dealing with hazing on campus
  • Assisted institutions with navigating difficult student misconduct issues
  • Counseled institutions on the intersection of policy requirements and anti-discrimination issues

Labor & Employment

While innovative and dynamic, college and university campuses are amongst the most complex employment venues with various categories of employment, including faculty, staff, adjunct, and student worker roles. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team has been recognized regionally and nationally for its employment counsel. We assist with the preparation of faculty and staff employment guides and contracts, investigation and resolution of workplace disputes, and work with clients on issues related to unions, ranging from elections and collective bargaining to representation before arbitration panels and the NLRB. Our representative experience includes:

  • Defended a university through trial in a negligence case where a former employee was accused of taking photographs of students without their knowledge
  • Defended higher education institution in litigation concerning termination of administrator


Possible unionization on campuses creates additional complexities for institutions of higher education. The Steptoe & Johnson team has a record of success in exceeding expectations across the spectrum of labor issues, from organizing campaigns to decertification, and everything in between. Labor activities such as picketing and petitions for recognition can happen anytime and are often planned to occur at the most inconvenient times. Responsiveness in times of crisis is vitally important. Steptoe & Johnson has the depth to ensure that experienced lawyers are always ready to go, anytime or anywhere necessary. In addition, we work proactively with clients by training managers and supervisors to avoid issues whenever possible.


When issues develop surrounding tenure and promotion decisions, the Steptoe & Johnson team works together with campus leadership to develop a strategy to address such issues. We counsel institutions of higher education on their tenure procedures and processes and provide representation in tenure-related litigation.

Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation

Steptoe & Johnson’s employee benefits team designs creative, effective solutions to align with each institutions’ legal needs in all facets of employee benefits and compensation law. We have extensive experience helping colleges and universities achieve their goals through the design, implementation, and administration of tax-qualified retirement plans, health plans, and non-qualified deferred compensation plans. We also advise institutions on officer and executive employment agreements, including executive compensation programs.

Our attorneys have:

  • Defended colleges and universities, as well as affiliated organizations, in grievances, faculty tenure matters, and employee contract matters
  • Arbitrated on behalf of and advised multiple institutions of higher education regarding union issues
  • Defended a university through trial in a negligence case where a former employee was accused of taking photographs of students without their knowledge
  • Advised higher education clients on the employee benefits impacts of reductions in force, including voluntary and involuntary severance arrangements
  • Defended higher education institution in litigation concerning termination of an administrator
  • Assisted institutions with reductions in force

Intellectual Property

As intellectual centers, it is important for higher education institutions to undertake the steps necessary to protect the original work of its faculty and intellectual collaborators. As colleges and universities increase the use of online course delivery modalities, they must have robust policies in place that guide employees, faculty, and students on the appropriate use of the intellectual property and copywritten materials.

Steptoe & Johnson attorneys have extensive experience in issues related to intellectual property rights, including trademark and copyright. In addition, as institutions of higher education market themselves and their programs, they often utilize logos and other forms of trade dress which have been the subject of considerable investments of time and money. Steptoe & Johnson can help to protect this investment for the benefit of institutions.

Data Security

Colleges and universities hold large quantities of sensitive data regarding students, employees, and others associated with the institution. At the same time, the use and preservation of such sensitive data are strictly regulated to protect individual privacy. Because of the value of the data held by colleges and universities, they are increasingly becoming prime targets for hackers.

Recognizing the importance of emerging issues associated with data protection, Steptoe & Johnson has cultivated a strong and experienced cybersecurity group. We can help colleges and universities improve their data security policies and processes and vigorously defend institutions if a breach occurs.

Regulatory Compliance

For colleges and universities, the cost and complexity of meeting an array of regulatory demands is growing ever more daunting. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team partners with institutions to craft policies and processes that ease regulatory burdens. Our attorneys work with institutions to conduct audits of compliance processes and we defend institutions in the event of an investigation. We work with institutions on matters related to student financial aid, international student support, and many other areas. The goal of our attorneys is to help institutions identify and implement the best and most efficient practices associated with regulatory compliance. Our attorneys have:

  • Advised multiple institutions of higher education on FERPA and ADA compliance with respect to COVID-19 contact tracing and testing records for students and employees
  • Assisted large institution in a comprehensive review of its financial aid operations to ensure compliance with federal student aid regulations
  • Assisted multiple institutions in addressing compliance with Clery Act reporting requirements
  • Provided support and counsel to institutions on issues related to the administration and management of restricted and endowed assets and the application of safeguards contained in the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA)
  • Assisted multiple institutions in addressing immigration issues arising under the Student and Exchange Visitor Program
  • Assisted multiple institutions in addressing emotional support animal requirements imposed by the Fair Housing Act 


We have broad experience in working with both institutions and athletic conferences on issues ranging from program compliance to athlete safety and health. Our attorneys have partnered with NCAA, NAIA and NCCAA schools to help them ensure that their athletic programs are governed by effective and accountable policies and processes and, in the event of an investigation, we support institutions through the review and remediation process. Our attorneys have:

  • Represented a university charged with multiple NCAA violations necessitating termination of athletic director’s long-term employment agreement
  • Advised institutions of higher education and an individual conference on compliance with NCAA guidance regarding return-to-play during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Advised institutions on appropriate handling of NCAA violations
  • Negotiated employment contracts with athletic directors
  • Assisted institutions in dealing with issues surrounding the welfare of student-athletes

Institutional Partnerships and Mergers

Strains upon higher education institutions have made the business of managing a college or university ever more challenging over the last decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to already existing pressures. In the face of such mounting challenges, many colleges and universities may consider forms of integration or deep collaboration in order to attain efficiencies of scale or to assist with financial challenges. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team works with institutions to explore potential pathways and to navigate regulatory, licensing, and accreditation requirements that may influence key operational decisions. We bring an experienced perspective to any consideration of such potential institutional recalibrations. Our attorneys have:

  • Negotiated merger and asset purchase agreements between institutions of higher education
  • Negotiated and drafted an international nursing program agreement with a foreign university on behalf of a U.S. college
  • Assisted private higher education institution with purchasing the assets of another private institution and addressed related accreditation issues and student financial aid compliance concerns
  • Assisted private higher education institution in drafting and negotiating contracts for sale and provision of services related to teaching, transportation, remote learning and event management 

Stay informed. Sign up for our mailing lists.

Stay Informed

All of our news and resources are shared electronically. Select your preferred list(s) below.(Required)