In any conversation with Steven Cousins, the word “excellence” is going to come up a lot. It is an idea that started with his dad.
“He went from having three jobs and living in poverty in St. Louis to having a nice business and moving to the county,” said the 67-year-old Yale graduate who got his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, “so I felt that excellence can be a liberating force in the marketplace, however imperfect. In the marketplace, excellence will be rewarded. Period.”
That stance has indeed rewarded Cousins, who became the first associate to form a department at Armstrong Teasdale, where he spent a three-and-a-half-decade career accumulating a number of milestones as the first African-American to join the firm as an associate, make partner and be named to the executive committee.
Though he started as a tax lawyer, Cousins ultimately gravitated into bankruptcy work around which he eventually formed his department, getting in on the ground floor of changes that made the previously obscure area of law a more desirable way for companies to restructure themselves. Envisioning a collection of superstar lawyers, he built the unit into a powerhouse, becoming a major rainmaker who, even as an associate, sometimes made more than the partners.
“It wasn’t just about Steve Cousins,” he said. “It was about helping others in the firm who were talented and wonderful lawyers and got a chance to go on this wonderful ride with me.”
An American College of Bankruptcy fellow, he went on to make major waves shepherding both the largest private-sector coal company in the world and the largest specialty family footwear retailer in the Western Hemisphere through Chapter 11. For a quarter century, he was general counsel for the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association and has served on a dizzying array of boards in the area from the local art museum to Children’s Hospital to the Public Schools Foundation. A recipient of the Rossier Award from the Missouri Bankruptcy Bar, he has been honored by the NAACP as an inspiring St. Louisan in 2014 and with a Commitment to St. Louis Award in 2017. The same year, the Missouri Bar Foundation would give him its Martin J. Purcell Award.
“I’m from St. Louis and I feel a huge need to give back in equal proportion to what you take from a community,” he said.
A longtime fan of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall – whom he once had the privilege of meeting – he remains a force to be reckoned with and even founded his own consulting firm, Cousins Allied Strategic Advisors, in 2019.
He still believes in excellence – both professional and civic.
“Those two aren’t mutually exclusive,” he said. “You should do both. You have a dual obligation to serve clients and community.”