Lawyers' Man of the Hour

Benjamin R. Civiletti, who charges $1,000 an hour for his work at Venable LLP, says
Benjamin R. Civiletti, who charges $1,000 an hour for his work at Venable LLP, says "the figure is meaningless." (File Photo)
By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

There is inflation. And then, there is what happened this year.

In June, the nation's average price of a house rose to a record $268,000.

In September, after the Gulf Coast hurricanes, the price of a gallon of gas soared past $3.

And earlier this month, a survey reported the top hourly rate for a lawyer had edged into the four digits for the first time, reaching $1,000.

Last week, the National Law Journal identified Benjamin R. Civiletti, a U.S. attorney general under President Jimmy Carter and chairman of the District-based Venable law firm, as the priciest lawyer in America. Civiletti, who specializes in litigation, antitrust law and white-collar defense, topped the National Law Journal's 16th annual survey of hourly rates at more than 100 of the country's top law firms.

A thousand dollars an hour doesn't catapult Civiletti, 70, into the ranks of marquee moneymakers such as rapper 50 Cent, who recently took home $500,000 for performing at a bat mitzvah, or Redskins receiver Clinton Portis, who earns almost $400,000 per game.

But in a little over a week, Civiletti is capable of taking in what the average American makes in one year. And if he charged $1,000 for all 1,800 hours he puts in during a year, he would make eight times what he earned as attorney general in 1979, or about $212,379 in today's dollars.

Civiletti cruised past the survey's previous record of $875 an hour to a rate that is hundreds of dollars higher than senior partners at some of Washington's and New York's largest law firms, according to the National Law Journal.

Though other lawyers may have reached $1,000 without reporting it, Civiletti's rate is "far higher than any rate I've ever heard," said John C. Coffee Jr., a former corporate lawyer in New York who is now a law professor at Columbia University.

"I was slightly surprised. . . . I suppose somebody had to crack that barrier," said R. Charles Miller, administrative partner in the Washington office of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP, which employs another former U.S. attorney general: Dick Thornburgh. Block said the firm hasn't finalized rates for 2006 yet but said Thornburgh's "will not be that high."

One partner at Patton Boggs LLP, the second-priciest Washington firm after Venable in the survey, charges up to $800 an hour. At Hogan & Hartson, the rate goes up to $750 a hour. Twelve partners at Covington & Burling, the District firm with the fourth-highest rate, charge up to $720 an hour.

More typical for partners in Washington firms is about $500 an hour, said Steve Nelson, managing principal for law and government for the McCormick Group, an executive search firm based in Arlington. The average for partners in large New York firms ranges from about $700 to $800, Nelson said.

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