A Ladder for Legal Success: Steven Smathers

December 2, 2013

Misty and Steven Smathers

Steven Smathers, a two-time Ohio State graduate, recalls his college days as being a difficult time. Besides the usual stresses of going to classes and studying, he had two young children and the additional responsibilities that come with being a husband and father.

“I had financial issues that complicated the daunting intellectual challenge of law school,” said Steven, who credits alumni with helping him make it through. “The scholarships I received, no matter how big or small, helped get me across the finish line. I knew, as a student, that if I was ever in a position to help others, I had a moral obligation to help the students who came after me.”

Science was Steven’s first interest, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in 1972 with a desire to become a doctor. However, a project he did at Ohio State’s School of Poultry Science for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration convinced him to look further for his ideal career path. “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it would be a lifelong fit,” he said.

Instead, Steven dived into law, admittedly unsure about what he planned to do from there. After graduation from the Michael E. Moritz College of Law in 1976, he took a job with a large firm in Philadelphia that gave its young attorneys experience by rotating them through several of its divisions. “I found a home with the corporate group,” he said. “It was competitive enough to be a challenge, but not enough to make my head hurt.”

After several years and a move to Dallas—where he’s lived for more than three decades—Steven spent the next 10 years at the law firm of Johnson & Gibbs, ending as corporate shareholder in the financial institutions group. It was there that he met James Sowell of Sowell & Co., which started as a client, and then became an opportunity. Sowell & Co. buys underappreciated, struggling or emerging companies, then rebuilds and sells them.

“I thought I could be valuable to Sowell. I wanted to give input on the business side,” said Steven, who joined the company in 1991 and is now general counsel and managing director. He has worked with all manner of businesses, including restaurants, golf courses, hotels, energy, pet products and medical device companies. He also shares his knowledge and experience about acquisitions and corporate finance as a professor at Southern Methodist University.

When asked if any Ohio State professors inspired him, Steven names Bob Lynn, Robert Nordstrom and John Slain as major influences. “Without them, my legal education would have been incomplete,” he said. “They not only taught the law, but taught me to love the thinking process that drives the law. They taught me to think about problems and create solutions. It was a difficult process, but the professors were understanding, sympathetic and yet intellectually demanding.”

In 2012, he decided the time was right to establish the Steven and Misty Smathers Endowed Scholarship Fund in the Moritz College of Law. The need-based scholarship goes to students with at least one child. First preference is for a student who is unmarried. The Smathers also are President’s Club donors and members of The Ohio State University Alumni Association.

“Ohio State made me the student I was and the lawyer I became. The school gave me the opportunity to develop skills I did not know I had and to refine the ones I thought were already effective,” he said. “I learned that if I was to succeed in life, I would have to be persistent.”

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