Less than two months after Travis County commissioners hired an outside law firm to represent the county and District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg in a wrongful termination lawsuit, attorneys have burned through the initial $50,000 budget.
The Commissioners Court last week approved raising the not-to-exceed amount of its contract with Scott, Douglass & McConnico to $100,000.
The lawsuit stemmed from Lehmberg’s firing of former prosecutor Steve Brand in June, a decision she said was based on comments he made in court that she found racially insensitive.
Brand alleged in a federal lawsuit filed in July that Lehmberg fired him after he triggered a Texas Rangers review of her actions when he reported that she tried to pressure him into protecting an Austin police homicide detective under two internal affairs investigations. The Rangers review determined no criminal offense had been committed.
County officials had told the American-Statesman that the $600 hourly rate for lawyer Stephen McConnico was higher than usual. The typical rate is $200 to $400, county officials said.
Even before the recent lawsuit, though, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for the county to pay outside lawyers more than that. Lawyers received fees of $500 an hour or more in at least three of the seven times that the county has relied on outside lawyers since 2010, according to records obtained by the American-Statesman.
- The county agreed to pay one lawyer up to $550 an hour in a 2011 contract with Andrews Kurth, a law firm that advised the county on a new financial system. Associate attorneys would make $290 an hour and $420 an hour, according to a copy of the agreement.
- Bracewell & Giuliani lawyers, who have provided bond counsel to the county since 2012, get paid up to $745 an hour, according to a copy of a fee schedule. Associates are paid between $250 and $605 an hour; partners are paid between $495 and $745 an hour; and counsel are paid between $470 and $580 an hour.
- Attorneys for the firm Scott, Douglass & McConnico — a subcontractor that can provide services to the primary lawyer hired to represent the county in a congressional redistricting lawsuit — receive fees between $325 and $500 an hour, according to a copy of a contract modification. Other plaintiffs, including the City of Austin, are splitting legal costs with the county.
Other lawyers hired by the county have gotten paid lower fees.
In a case where a former county employee sued Travis County — and another case in which a current county employee was sued — lawyers were paid between $130 and $225 an hour. (A copy of the original contract for another employee-related lawsuit wasn’t immediately available Monday; only a document saying a county file related to that case had been closed was available. Tax lawyers received a fee of up to $400 an hour.)
County officials said they typically hire outside lawyers for matters that require expertise in a certain area of law, or in cases where using in-house attorneys — who, in the rare instances when they bill, have rates between $112 and $150 an hour — could present a conflict of interest.
County Judge Sam Biscoe said officials had concerns about in-house attorneys representing Lehmberg because those attorneys had sought to remove her from office after her drunken driving arrest last year. When looking for outside lawyers, county officials said they were looking for a firm with expertise in employment law.
Biscoe said the cases in which lawyers have received fees on the higher end “really required specialized knowledge” and that the fees were reasonable. Typically, if officials determine they should hire outside counsel, the county attorney’s office will bring the Commissioners Court a list of three or four candidates and their hourly rates, Biscoe said.
Other local governments in Texas and elsewhere in the nation frequently hire outside lawyers to represent them, though it’s tough to tell how much those lawyers are usually paid.
The City of Austin’s average cost per hour for outside counsel services was $350 in 2013, according to the city’s website. A 2014 report by two legal analytics firms that studied fees companies paid to outside law firms found that the median rate for a partner in Austin was $390 last year. The median rate for an Austin lawyer with 21 or more years of experience was $421.
McConnico has said in a statement that his firm “will work hard to give District Attorney Lehmberg and Travis County good, cost-efficient legal representation.” The rate for the primary lawyer working on the case is $400 an hour, Biscoe said.
The first $50,000 the county spent paying Scott, Douglass and McConnico came from savings from unfilled positions in the district attorney’s office, Biscoe said. The next $50,000 will come from the county’s risk management fund, Biscoe said.
The county’s outside lawyers have requested that they be awarded legal fees if they prevail, according to a court document filed earlier this month.