The hourly rates of the country’s top lawyers are increasingly coming with something new — a comma.
A few attorneys crossed into $1,000-per-hour billing before this year, but recent moves to the four-figure mark in New York, which sets trends for legal markets around the country, are seen as a significant turning point.
On Sept. 1, New York’s Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP will raise its top rate to more than $1,000 from $950. Firm partner Barry Ostrager, a litigator, says he will be one of the firm’s thousand-dollar billers, along with private-equity specialist Richard Beattie and antitrust lawyer Kevin Arquit. The top biller at New York’s Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP hit $1,000 per hour earlier this year. At Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, also of New York, bankruptcy attorney Brad Scheler, now at $995 per hour, will likely soon charge $1,000.
At large firms, billable rates have climbed steadily over the years, since 2000 rising an average of 6% to 7% annually, according to the law-firm group of Citi Private Bank, a unit of Citigroup Inc. But for some time, the highest-billing partners at top big-city firms have hovered in the mid-to-high $900 range, hesitant to cross the four-figure threshold. “We have viewed $1,000 an hour as a possible vomit point for clients,” says a partner at a New York firm. “Frankly, it’s a little hard to think about anyone who doesn’t save lives being worth this much money,” says David Boies, one of the nation’s best-known trial lawyers, at the Armonk, N.Y., office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP.
A select group of attorneys began billing at that rate before this year, such as Stephen Susman, a founding partner of a Houston firm who has tried big-ticket cases around the country, and Benjamin Civiletti, a former U.S. Attorney General under President Carter and a senior partner at Washington, D.C-based Venable LLP. And in London, top attorneys bill at rates that, when converted, can hit almost $1,500 an hour.
As a critical mass develops around fees of $1,000 an hour in New York, though, more firms may feel comfortable going to that level and beyond. “One-thousand dollars per hour has symbolic significance,” says Robert Rosenberg, a Latham & Watkins LLP partner who bills $925 an hour. “But like the year 2000, it’s just a number.”