Benefits, compensation law to continue on robust path, local attorney says

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 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
 
 
Although Andrew Stumpff enjoyed history and English, his parents encouraged a major in math as offering better job opportunities.
 
Chalk one up to parental wisdom. Stumpff, a shareholder of Stevenson Keppelman Associates in Ann Arbor, parlayed his math expertise into the legal specialty of employee benefits and executive compensation and also teaches the topic at his alma mater, the University of Michigan Law School.
 
The subject matter is a foreign landscape to most of his students, too young to have had to give even cursory thought to pension plans; to the difference between a traditional defined benefit plan and a 401(k); or to the problem of extending health insurance to large populations.
 
“We have to cover the underlying subject in some detail before we even get to the law of the underlying subject,” Stumpff says.
 
But his students may find this to be a good specialty.
 
“Over the long haul, throughout my career, demand in the area of employee benefits and executive compensation law has been relatively robust; and it seems likely to continue to be so – plus you can choose among jobs in a lot of different contexts, such as government, in-house corporate work, legislative staffs, unions and traditional law firms,” he says.
The more Stumpff has worked in this area over the years, the more he has been struck with how central this area of law is to key issues of national policy concern – not only hot political topics like Obamacare and the condition of Social Security; but also broader, day-to-day questions of how we expect U.S. citizens to be able to access basic necessities of life, he notes.
 
“In the U.S., to a degree unique among countries, retirement and health benefits have tended to be provided through employment,” he says.
 
Obamacare is particularly interesting. According to Stumpff, the problem the law  attempts to solve goes to the heart of the idea of insurance.
 
“To work, insurance has to cover basically a thorough cross-section of the population – otherwise you get a vicious cycle where the only people who buy insurance are those who are sick, driving the premiums to unaffordable levels,” he says. “The only way to avoid this is to get an entire group —healthy and unhealthy—in the system, and previously this was mostly done by providing insurance through employment – if you worked somewhere, you would be covered by the company’s insurance. That model is fading; plus we needed to find a way to cover people who aren’t employed. These considerations logically lead, directly, to an individual mandate.”
 
Executive compensation is always a field that attracts a lot of controversy and attention, notes Stumpff, who also teaches in the University of Alabama Law School LL.M in Taxation program.
 
“The disparity between what U.S. high executives make, relative to their company’s rank-and-file, is enormous and growing.”
 
Named a ”key individual” in Michigan employee benefits/executive compensation law by Chambers USA, Stumpff is a fellow of the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel, and a former co-chair of the Employee Benefits Committee of the New York State Bar Association Tax Section. Published widely in the benefits field, he is the author of a law school casebook, “Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation,” and of “VEBAs and Other Welfare Benefit Funding Arrangements,” a leading treatise on voluntary employees’ beneficiary associations.
 
Drawn to law by an interest in politics and policy – and a penchant for arguing and debating – Stumpff earned his JD from the University of Michigan Law School in 1986, where he served as article editor of The Michigan Law Review.
 
His decision to try out employee benefits law was driven by the fact it was the legal specialty, with the possible exception of tax, in which his background in math might be most useful. He also briefly worked as an actuary after law school, a natural fit with pension and health law.
 
Early in his career, Stumpff served as an assistant branch chief in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel-Employee Benefits and Exempt Organizations Division, helping oversee national litigation.
 
“I liked working on cases and issues where what you were trying to do was bring about what seemed like the right answer, rather than, as in private practice, the result that most happens to help your own client,” he says.
 
An associate – and then partner – at the large Wall Street firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, Stumpff specialized in executive compensation and the employee benefits aspects of corporate transactions. Moving back to Michigan for family reasons in the early 2000s, he quit law for a while to study graduate biochemistry at Michigan State University.
 
“That was really interesting, but ultimately, at my stage in life, wasn’t an entirely realistic career route, so I returned to the path of the law,” he says.
 
In 2008, he approached then-Assistant Dean Kyle Logue about re-starting a benefits course at Michigan Law, after a previously offered course had gone dormant.
 
“He was – to my surprise – receptive,” says Stumpff, who enjoys many things about teaching. “It’s rewarding to see people catch on to concepts that are considered by many to be complicated and obscure,” he says. “A number of my students have gone on to careers in this field. It’s also a commonplace, but true, that teaching refines and enhances your own understanding of the subject.”
 
Stumpff and his colleagues are also trying to increase involvement with and capacity of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, an IRS-sponsored program to help indigent taxpayers with their returns, spearheaded in Washtenaw County by Cooley Law professor Gina Torielli.
 
A native of Warrensburg, Mo., Stumpff makes his home in Ann Arbor, where his son, Matthew, is a senior at Pioneer High School; daughter Abigail is a sophomore at Cranbrook-Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills.
 
“Ann Arbor is a unique, indescribably cool place,” he says. “Something to do with the confluence of a huge world-class university with a smallish town on a Midwestern interstate, with a massive football stadium to boot.”
 

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