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Top Lawyers
Would you pay $1,000 an hour for this man’s time? The best legal talent doesn’t come cheap—here’s why lawyers make what they do, how they make partner (or don’t), plus the top 1 percent of the area’s 80,000 attorneys. By Kashmir Hill, David Lat
Comments () | Published December 1, 2009
Clients who retain Robert Bennett pay top dollar for his high-level contacts, sound judgment, and lifetime of legal savvy. Photograph by Vincent Ricardel

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“Where’s my photo with Sandy?” shouts Robert Bennett as he searches for a photo from a fishing trip with former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

His secretary has bad news: She doesn’t know where it is.

“It should be here,” he insists.

Legendary litigator Bob Bennett moved into this 11th-floor corner office at Hogan & Hartson a few weeks earlier, after spending 20 years at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The memorabilia on his shelves attest to his storied career.

In one photo, he stands next to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. “That was after the pardon,” he says. In another, he hides his face behind a book as he whispers to a serious, dark-haired man beside him. “That was at a congressional hearing. That’s an executive from HealthSouth.”

There’s a photo of a cowboy-hatted Bill Clinton on a horse; Bennett defended Clinton in the Paula Jones case. “Bill sent that to me because he knows I love the West,” he says.

The shelves send a message: The hefty Bennett—wearing a gray pinstripe suit with a lavender silk tie and matching pocket square—is worth the money. He’s one of the nation’s top defense lawyers, and his clients pay more than $1,000 an hour for his time.

That’s part of the reason why partners at Hogan & Hartson, a DC firm founded in 1904, were happy to have Bennett join their ranks this September.

Bennett’s first job as a corporate litigator was at Hogan in the early 1970s. “I tell young associates worried about making partner that it took 35 years for Hogan to offer me partnership,” he says. He left Hogan to join a smaller firm, then moved to the DC office of Skadden, the global megafirm that rose to prominence during the takeover battles of the 1980s.

James Hourihan, now of counsel at Hogan, previously occupied this corner office. When Bennett returned, Hourihan agreed to cede the prime space to him.

Two decades ago, in 1988, Hourihan and his fellow Hogan partners earned an average of $267,000 in profits per partner. Today, the new occupant of Hourihan’s office will make millions of dollars a year. Hogan & Hartson was the highest-grossing law firm in Washington in 2008, with DC revenue of $447.5 million and profits per partner of $1.29 million, according to the National Law Journal. The profits-per-partner figure is an average; Bennett will likely make much more.

What has happened in the legal profession to generate such outsize revenue and profit? Why do lawyers make so much money?

$160,000 Paycheck at Age 25

Because all things legal come with caveats, here is one: Not all lawyers make so much money. Many attorneys—among them public defenders, prosecutors, lawyers for nonprofits, and many federal-government lawyers—earn salaries below $100,000. According to the DC-based Association for Legal Career Professionals, median 2008 salaries were $75,000 for veteran public defenders and $80,830 for senior state prosecutors.

But attorneys at corporate law firms and successful plaintiff’s lawyers can have big paydays. Many 25-year-old law-school graduates get first jobs as law-firm associates earning $160,000 a year. Salaries escalate from there, and—in better times—are often supplemented by five-figure bonuses. Law-firm partners, the owners and operators of these large businesses, do even better. In 2008, profits per partner at Washington’s ten highest-grossing firms ranged from $910,000 to $2.07 million.

Partners who leave their firms for government positions see their incomes drop, trading pay for prestige and maybe future earnings. In 2008, Eric Holder made $3.3 million as a partner at Covington & Burling; his current salary as US attorney general is $196,700. Greg Craig earned about $1.7 million in 2008 as a Williams & Connolly partner; as White House counsel he earns $172,200. John Roberts earned more than $1 million as a Hogan & Hartson partner in 2003 before he became a federal appeals-court judge; today, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, he earns $217,400.

A second caveat: The legal industry, usually viewed as one that thrives in good times and bad, hasn’t been immune to the recession. Many bright young people troop off to law school assuming they’re embarking on a secure career path with a job upon graduation practically guaranteed. Yet large-scale layoffs and postponed starting dates for new hires at many law firms have raised questions about the job security offered by a law degree.

“Right now there is a glut of talent in the market at almost all levels, for associates in particular,” says Peter Zeughauser, chairman of the Zeughauser Group, a law-firm consultancy. “So salaries are coming down. It’s all market-driven.”


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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 12/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles