Charge for two Miami litigation partners to attend a one-day deposition of celebrity socialite Paris Hilton: $14,000 plus travel.
Outside legal fees accrued by government agencies to defend the administration of Florida's Medicaid program for children: up to $94,000 a month.
Hourly billing rates for lawyers representing Fontainebleau Las Vegas Holdings in tumultuous federal bankruptcy proceedings: $370 to $700.
Those charges -- a glimpse at the current price tag for legal services in South Florida -- were found among more than 150 court filings and legal bills reviewed by the Daily Business Review in its fourth annual survey of lawyer compensation. [See the Daily Business Review's full coverage, Lawyer Compensation (registration required).]
Despite the sluggish economy, top billing rates at most South Florida law firms showed modest increases in 2009, with more partners than ever charging hourly rates exceeding $500.
Topping this year's list at $765 was Greenberg Traurig partner Mark Bloom for his work as general counsel to the trustee in the long-running bankruptcy case of Miami-based Southeast Banking, the holding company of defunct Southeast Bank. Bloom also held the top spot in 2008.
Hunton & Williams partner Craig Rasile ranked second, billing $735 an hour for work as counsel to the receiver for the Lancer Group hedge fund bankruptcy.
But commanding top rates is just one window on a firm's financial health, and law firm finances may be more strained than such robust hourly rates would suggest. Many managing partners said their firms are facing pressure from cost-conscious clients to discount billing rates.
The economic pinch also is encouraging general and outside counsel to consider alternatives to hourly billing, industry experts said. While the billable hour still dominates, the trend is moving toward alternative pay arrangements such as flat fees, portfolio bidding and partial contingency agreements.
"Right now we are in a buyer's market for legal services. This is not a seller's market," Hildebrandt International consultant Joseph Altonji said.
Altonji, who heads the new LawVision unit at Hildebrandt, said U.S. law firms increased hourly billing rates an average of 3 percent in 2009 compared with an 8 percent surge in 2008.
"Frankly, a lot of firms this year have been getting letters from clients saying, ‘We like you very much but your rates are going down -- period,' " he said.
Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale responded to the financial downturn by freezing billing rates this year, said managing partner Alan Becker. Hourly rates for partners range from $350 to $500, with associates charging $200 to $350.
He does not anticipate increases in the coming year, and some rates may be rolled back.
"There is tremendous pressure from clients to lower costs and lower rates," Becker said, adding that clients are asking outside counsel to "share the pain."
Becker & Poliakoff has agreed to reduce rates for some clients in exchange for a greater volume of work, Becker said.
"If we're in a position to help clients navigate these difficult times through some creative solutions, we're willing to do that," he said.
But the firm has a bottom line. "We can't go too far afield from the basic fact that money out cannot exceed money in."
BY THE NUMBERS
The Daily Business Review's study is not comprehensive. Many attorney billing rates are compiled from fee application filings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where they are required. Because bankruptcy practices tend to thrive when the economy slumps, this year's results may not fully reflect turmoil in the legal market.
The Review also obtained billing data from Florida government agencies that retained private attorneys to handle litigation, bond issuances or other matters. Those rates ranged from $210 to $585.
In all, billing rates were compiled for 147 attorneys at nearly 40 law firms.
Among the group was George LeMieux, Florida's junior U.S. senator and former chairman of West Palm Beach-based Gunster. LeMieux, who took office Aug. 28, billed at an hourly rate of $500, according to disclosures from Florida's Department of Transportation.
South Florida partners typically charged $400 to $500 an hour -- with a median hourly rate of $445, the survey found. Associates' hourly rates ranged from $140 to $460.
No record showed a billing rate topping the $1,000 mark broken by some New York firms.
Coming closest was Bloom, whose hourly rate climbed more than 10 percent in 2009 -- from $695 to $765, according to fee applications in the Southeast Banking case.
In April, Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul G. Hyman Jr. in West Palm Beach awarded Greenberg Traurig a $3.2 million bonus, citing the firm's "extraordinary" results for creditors. Bloom declined comment through a firm spokeswoman.
The most expensive associates named in court filings were Miami lawyers David Bane, Kevin Eckhardt and Alex Soto of Hunton & Williams -- all billing at an hourly rate of $455 for their work on the Lancer receivership.
Hunton & Williams partner Marty Steinberg, who heads the receivership, said firm billing rates are determined centrally. Increases typically kick in April 1. Steinberg's hourly rate was $695.
"I assume the firm thinks I'm worth that amount based on my track record," he said. "I've tried hundreds of cases, and I've gotten pretty good results."
At Ruden McClosky, hourly rates for partners range from $275 to $570. Associates at the mid-sized Fort Lauderdale-based firm charge $215 to $290.
Managing partner Carl Schuster said pricing factors in the skills of individual attorneys and what practice areas are most in demand.
"Obviously, we look at the competition in the market," he said. "We don't want to be overpriced, and we don't want to be underpriced."
The firm's rates rose by an average of 3 percent this year, Schuster said. However, partners extended discounts to some clients, particularly businesses in the beleaguered real estate and banking sectors. No decisions have been made on increases for 2010.
"We certainly had requests from clients where they feel they need some help and were asking for discounts," he said. "We've been working with clients to make sure they're comfortable with our rates."
For years, lawyers have weighed the pros and cons of the billable hour against other pricing models -- such as contingency or flat fee arrangements. Still, the vast majority of legal work is paid for by the hour.
The recession finally could drive law firms and general counsel to break away from that steady metric of law firm culture, said James Wilber, head of law department consulting for Altman Weil. Most firms either offer alternative pricing arrangements or are working to move in that direction.
"If what we're seeing holds, this may truly be the start of a wave," he said. "It's clearly the economic crisis that brought us here."
Michael Goldberg, a partner at Akerman Senterfitt in Miami who often serves as a court-appointed receiver, agrees.
"We're going into a new era in the legal profession where lawyers are going to have to be more flexible on billing arrangements to meet the demands of clients," he said.
John Genovese, managing partner of Genovese Joblove & Battista in Miami, said alternative fee structures can pay off for both sides.
The firm recently shared in a $688 million award to the legal team representing Enron investors in a securities class action. Genovese would not disclose how much went to his firm, saying it was "a very significant fee" though "a very small portion" of the total.
As a boutique, Genovese Joblove can more easily accept contingency cases and offer hybrid fee arrangements such as blended hourly rates or reduced rates with success fees, he said.
"We try to assess with any client what their needs are, and we can frequently tailor a fee structure that benefits everyone," Genovese said. "The key is to balance the client's interests and the firm's interests."
Does that mean the impending demise of the billable hour? Not likely, area lawyers say.
"I know there are a lot of people out there critical of hourly billing, but I'm not sure there's anything better," Steinberg said.
Schuster said it's hard to get away from.
"It's just very difficult to value legal services without doing it on an hourly basis," he said.