Jack L. Gould, a former $30,000-a-year member of the Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney's office, became a successful lawyer the quick way: When he left his job in 1979 the county let him take $200,000 in legal business with him.
Gould was working on a complex discrimination suit the Justice Department had brought against Fairfax and county officials decided they could not afford the delay and expense of assigning the case to someone else. So, Gould said, they gave it to him.
Maryland lawyer Paul Nussbaum never had worked for local government. But while serving as president of the Prince George's Young Democrats in 1959, he met Lansdale G. Sasscer, then the 5th District Representative.
" 'How would you like to be the school board lawyer?' " Nussbaum recalls Sasscer asking him. " 'They only meet once a month and all they do is buy property.' " Nussbaum's firm, Reichelt, Nussbaum and Brown, has been general counsel for the Prince George's school board since then. Last year, the board paid the firm about $159,000 in legal fees.
Gould and Nussbaum are two members of a shadow network of private lawyers doing a booming business in legal work for suburban Washington jurisdictions.
Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's and Arlington counties and the City of Alexandria last year paid about $2.7 million in fees to private lawyers -- enough to hire twice the 73 full-time attorneys the localities have on their payrolls and just a little less than the $3.3 million the five jurisdictions spent to operate their legal offices.
While the government spending has been a boon to lawyers who specialize in labor negotiations, advise school boards, organize bond sales or handle other local issues, critics say the localities could do the work more efficiently and cheaply. They also complain that outside legal work sometimes is awarded through politics and usually without competitive bidding.
Those questions aside, some raise ethical questions about the propriety of lawyers leaving public jobs and taking legal cases with them. "That's unheard of as far as I know," said R. Thomas Ruland, executive director of the Federal Bar Association, a group that includes lawyers who work with federal agencies. "Normally, you would have no further contact with a case -- even private law firms follow that practice."
Ruland said the procedure may violate the American Bar Association's Code of Professional Responsibility which calls on lawyers to avoid "even the appearance of impropriety." The code also states: "A lawyer shall not at any time accept private employment in connection with any matter in which he or she participated personally and substantially as a public officer or employe . . . "
Joseph Condo, secretary of the Fairfax Bar Association, defends the outside contracting by the governments, arguing that the ABA rule was designed to prevent so-called "revolving door" cases. In those instances, Condo said, lawyers are barred from capitalizing on information they obtained by virtue of their positions as a government officials and returning to practice before the agency where they worked.
Robert Angelo, area director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he finds economics a major reason for doing the legal work in house. "We are absolutely, totally opposed to awarding legal business to outsiders ," he said. "If there is a job to be done that involves the delivery of public services, then county employes should do it. We don't believe in paying these high-priced law firms these exhorbitant hourly rates."
"I'm a believer in giving work to the private sector," countered Thomas M. Davis, a lawyer and Republican member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "A lot of times it's far cheaper to hire a private lawyer than to put a secretary and an attorney on our payroll. Another thing is that the county just doesn't have all the expertise for every problem that may crop up."
The practice of hiring private lawyers to perform government work varies widely in the Washington suburbs. The six county lawyers in Arlington do nearly all of its legal work, as does the District's Corporation Counsel's office. But most local governments farm out tens of thousands of dollars in legal work annually.
The practice is most widespread in Fairfax and Montgomery -- the area's two wealthiest counties -- which accounted for 66 percent of the spending for outside legal help last year.
Montgomery, with a staff of 19 county lawyers, paid 18 law firms $1.1 million last year. That included $707,567 to the Baltimore law firm of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway and Goldman to assist Maryland's defense of its controversial method of distributing state school funds against a lawsuit filed by three counties and the City of Baltimore.
Montgomery school board lawyer Charles A. Reese, who also represents the Howard County schools, was paid $125,675 by Montgomery. Most of the remaining Montgomery money went to an assortment of so-called "special counsels" who do work for various county boards and the County Council, said Paul A. McGuckian, county attorney.
Fairfax, which has 19 staff lawyers, paid 15 firms about $1.1 million in legal fees. Fairfax lawyer Thomas Cawley and the Washington law firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, which advises the school board on labor relations, were together paid a total of $284,000.
An additional $119,821 went to the Fairfax law firm of Sedam & Herge to collect overdue property taxes. An additional $93,000 was paid to Gould last year as part of about $200,000 in fees he received over the last two years for handling the job discrimination suit, which has been appealed to the Supreme Court and still is pending in Alexandria.
The Fairfax law firm of Hall, Surovell, Jackson & Colten also did zoning work for the Fairfax housing department. A department spokesman refused to say the amount of fees paid to the firm. Thomas P. Dugan, the firm's lawyer who does the housing department legal work, is a former Fairfax City attorney. One of the firm's associates, Rosemarie Annunziata, also is a member of the county planning commission.
"I believe we only get one or two cases a year," said Annunziata. "I believe this firm had that (zoning business) before I came to the firm."
Prince George's, which has 21 lawyers, paid eight law firms about $422,166 last year, including $159,000 to Nussbaum's firm, $125,000 to the Baltimore firm of Whiteford, Taylor, Preston, Trimble and Johnston to do work on a school desegregation case and $75,000 to Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn to handle county labor matters.
Alexandria and Arlington, both with fewer than 10 staff lawyers each, spent the least on outside lawyers. They paid $134,615 and $36,128 respectively last year to private law firms.
Fairfax's Gould said he does not recall whether he or the county first suggested he handle the discrimination suit, but he said it was a reasonable decision. "Because of the complex nature of the case it would have been extremely difficult for someone to pick up the case at the stage I left," Gould said. He said he gave the county two or three month's notice that he was leaving.
The county paid another former Fairfax assistant attorney, Kathryn M. Anderson, $2,000 last year to work on a zoning case after she left her job. "It was more efficient to do it that way," said Anderson, a former county attorney who now works at the Fairfax law firm of Maloney & Chess. "I don't see anything wrong with it." Anderson said she no longer is handling the zoning case.
Former Prince George's assistant attorney Nelson M. Oneglia also was retained by the county hospital commission for several years to perform legal work after he left the county legal staff in the early 1970s.
Oneglia said he no longer is doing work for the commission. He refused to say how much he was paid for his work, but said he was on retainer to the commission for several years. Hospital commission officials said it would take several days for them to determine how much Oneglia was paid.
"A lot of it who gets outside legal business has to do with politics," said Gammiel G. Poindexter, president of Virginia's all-black Old Dominion Bar Association and also commonwealth's attorney in Surry County. "There are plenty of qualified black and women lawyers." She said blacks and women aren't assigned government work, "because they don't happen to be a friend of a friend of a buddy's."
Unlike most consulting contracts, legal services are not subject to competitive bidding and such work seldom is advertised, say county attorneys from Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria, Prince George's and Montgomery. Instead, the localities have a policy that specifically excludes contracts for legal services from bidding.
Prince George's County Attorney Robert Ostrum said he does not play favorites when he contracts for outside legal work. "I pick whoever is available who wants to do it," he said. "We're not locked into any particular relationship with any law firms."
He said he relies mostly on his judgment to select an outside firm and negotiates payments 25 percent to 50 percent below regular fees.
Montgomery's McGuckian said he advertises for lawyers in specific instances but did not do so when he was seeking a firm to handle the expensive school case given to the Baltimore firm, because the lawyer selected had represented the county a decade before in a similar case that went to the Supreme Court.
"I don't have any problems with the county assigning outside work," said Clyde H. Sorrell, an attorney in McGuckian's office. "There are times when you need special expertise. I guess you could say that is a lot of money to pay one firm but when lawyers litigate it's always expensive."