At first, attorney Barbara Seely felt embarrassed about the prospect of publicity for her $65-an-hour pay.
In a fee request in a sexual harassment case, Seely cited as her hourly fee the amount she gets paid as regional attorney for the St. Louis district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That request landed her on the bottom of Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s sixth annual Billing Rates sampling of hourly rates.
“Are you calling to find out why I’m so pitifully paid?” Seely asked when a reporter reached her. She had just returned to the office after a weeklong unpaid furlough due to automatic budget cuts.
Seely said she eventually decided an interview was “an opportunity for me to get on my soapbox.”
“I think that while it’s a touch embarrassing, it points out how little government attorneys make compared to private lawyers,” Seely said.
That is, how little they make unless they decide to switch sides. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Seely is Catherine Hanaway, former U.S. Attorney and former speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. Hanaway’s full hourly rate was $793 in 2012, according to an email included in bankruptcy court filings for a client facing a Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit. The rate — more than 12 times Seely’s — is the highest for a Missouri attorney in the sampling.
While Hanaway is based in Missouri, her firm, founded by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, is national, Hanaway said.
“The vast majority of our work is premium work for national and international clients, and our rates are reflective of that,” said Hanaway, a partner with Ashcroft Hanaway in St. Louis.
Hanaway’s rate is hundreds of dollars lower than the highest rate for an out-of-state attorney in the sampling — $1,175 for Los Angeles attorney Milton Hyman.
This year’s Billing Rates sampling of the hourly rates of 648 attorneys and staff members is a study in contrasts: the difference between Hanaway’s hourly rate and Seely’s hourly pay; Patriot Coal Corp. attorneys’ fees of $985 an hour for their work arguing that the company can’t afford what it’s paying in benefits and pensions for protesting miners and retirees; Cape Girardeau attorneys’ arguments that St. Louis lawyers’ hourly rates are too high for the southeast Missouri market. (The average for a St. Louis partner in the sampling is $401. Cape attorneys declare no lawyer there charges $300 or more.)
And then there is lawyers’ love/hate relationship with Billing Rates itself. The section draws complaints, including that the values plaintiffs’ attorneys set on their time in contingency fee cases is inflated; that rates footnoted as possibly inflated because they were found in a contingency fee case aren’t; that highlighting the lowest rate is embarrassing to the lawyer who billed it.
But attorneys increasingly seek out the special section and cite it in court cases to back up contentions that a particular hourly rate is reasonable. For the first time this year, a Missouri Supreme Court dissent cited the publication. Also a first this year, some law firms volunteered their attorneys’ hourly rates.
Numbers, of course, never tell the whole story. While Hanaway’s ordinary rate is nearly $800 an hour, that’s not to say she always gets paid that amount. The email that outlined her rate and those of her colleagues also said that the firm had reached an agreement with an insurance company to cut those rates by 30 percent for their representation of Burton Morriss, a former investment company leader facing an SEC lawsuit. In addition, because her firm often represents clients in trouble, they can have difficulty getting paid. For example, in 2010, what was then The Ashcroft Law Firm was listed as a creditor owed nearly $669,000 by the bankrupt US Fidelis, a collapsed vehicle service contracts marketer.
And Seely may not charge nearly as much, but she says she wouldn’t trade places with private attorneys who handle the same kind of discrimination and harassment employment cases she does.
“I feel like I’m making the world a better place,” Seely said. “If I don’t get paid a ton of money, that’s OK.”