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Giving federal defense work a try

Thirteen years ago, attorneys who took on federal public defense cases made $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $60 for trial work.

The criminal defense cases were seen as a good way for attorneys to get into the courthouse and make their names known, but they weren’t viewed as a good revenue source.

Evans & Dixon senior associate Talmage Newton IV meets with a client at the St. Louis city workhouse. Newton is representing the client as part of his volunteer work for the Missouri Public Defender System. He's also handling two federal public defense cases for which he can be paid $110 an hour. Photo by Karen Elshout

Evans & Dixon senior associate Talmage Newton IV meets with a client at the St. Louis city workhouse. Newton is representing the client as part of his volunteer work for the Missouri Public Defender System. He's also handling two federal public defense cases for which he can be paid $110 an hour. Photo by Karen Elshout

Things have changed a little since. The pay is now $110 an hour for both in- and out-of-court work; improved, but not enough to sustain a practice.

But the work has proved tempting enough for an Evans & Dixon associate to lump it on top of the 50 hours a week devoted to his insurance defense practice.

Senior associate Talmage Newton IV signed up as a member of a Criminal Justice Act lead panel of attorneys early this year. As a member, he’s obligated to take on at least two criminal defense cases if he’s appointed by a judge. Newton’s gotten two already: one client charged with drug possession, and another facing charges connected to an alleged drug trafficking conspiracy.

Senior associate Reno Cova III also is applying for the panel as part of an effort the workers’ compensation defense firm views as giving back to the community. Cova hasn’t been given a case.

Associates who choose to work on the federal defense cases will get credit toward their billable hours, said Larry Pratt, leader of the civil litigation group at Evans & Dixon.

The attorneys don’t get paid for all their time on cases, Pratt said. When they are paid, it’s below market rate. Civil litigation attorneys at the firm charge from $150 to $250 an hour. 

“We’re not doing it for the money,” Pratt said. “We’ll take the money because it helps defer the expenses of having an attorney participate.”

The federal public defense work is more traditionally taken up by solo and small firm attorneys such as Chris Goeke of The Law Offices of J. Christian Goeke. Goeke said he’ll usually have about six of the cases at one time. Appointments usually come in clusters, and payment is consistent.

“It’s a nice source of income. It’s certainly not a source of income I rely upon to support my practice,” which also includes private defense and civil litigation work, Goeke said.

Other big firm attorneys do take federal appointments, but the firms often aren’t enthusiastic about them because they don’t pay the same rate the attorneys are used to making, said Lee Lawless, federal public defender for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Lawless pointed to Lewis, Rice & Fingersh attorney Barry Short’s representation of Charles Sell, a dentist charged with fraud. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 on the issue of whether the government could forcibly medicate Sell to make him well enough to stand trial.

The Supreme Court limited the government’s authority to medicate Seller. That counted as a victory for Short, but not for Lewis, Rice’s bottom line.

“That case was a big loser for his firm,” Lawless said.