Thursday, October 15, 2009

Money to Burn in Georgia

This story from today's Washington Post caught my attention, and not, shall we say, in a good way. My first thought: When staff from children's agencies have to jump in Boston Harbor in February to raise money for their "cause" (which is actually society's cause, of course), it is hard to imagine lawyers, however dedicated they may be, reaping this kind of windfall for merely doing their job. I'm all for advocates making a living wage (me being one of those advocates), and even profiting through exceptional competence. But when states are cutting services to children all over the place, when residential treatment as a very concept is endangered, why not put that $4.5 million toward - I don't know, the children in question? Just a thought. Public service lawyers everywhere are encouraged to disagree strenuously.

From the Post:

The Supreme Court spends a sizable portion of its time dealing with lawyers gone bad: the ones who miss critical filing deadlines, put up halfhearted defenses of clients facing death row, give bad advice with disastrous results.

On Wednesday, the court was faced with what to do about lawyers who do good. And also, extremely well.

The justices focused on a group of lawyers from a children's rights group and a private law firm who won a transformation of the state of Georgia's dysfunctional foster-care system. Their work on behalf of 3,000 children so impressed the federal judge who presided over the case that he awarded them a bonus of $4.5 million -- on top of the $6 million in legal fees he told the state to pay.

It made for an animated debate on the skyrocketing cost of legal work, exorbitant salaries for lawyers, whether judges should grade the lawyers who come before them and whether Congress intended some sort of bonus for lawyers who take on uncertain and sometimes unpopular civil rights cases.

Federal law allows those who prevail in such cases to recover their fees, and the judge in the case calculated those fees by multiplying what he thought were the reasonably expected billable hours by the prevailing hourly rate in Atlanta for such work, ranging from $215 an hour for the most junior associate to up to $495 for the most experienced partner.

But U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob went further in awarding the bonus. He said the lawyers from the group Children's Rights and Atlanta's Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore law firm displayed a "higher degree of skill, commitment, dedication and professionalism" than he had seen during his time on the bench, and that in "58 years as a practicing attorney and federal judge, the court is unaware of any other case in which a plaintiff class has achieved such a favorable result on such a comprehensive scale."

The state of Georgia balked at paying the multimillion-dollar bonus, and said neither federal law nor Supreme Court precedent allowed such "enhancements."

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