by Randy Dotinga
Voice of San Diego
Dec. 9, 2010
In other city finance news, 10News and the Watchdog Institute report that "despite having more than 130 lawyers on staff, since July 2006, the city of San Diego has spent more than $34 million on private lawyers."
And the U-T says about 2,200 current and retired city workers "may be forced to accept significantly reduced pensions or pay a lump sum of as much as $50,000 to keep their current pension."
December 10, 2010
Calculating the Cost of a City's Litigation
by Brian Baxter
The AM Law Daily
San Diego, no stranger to large legal bills, is grappling with $130 million in litigation costs accumulated over the past eight years, according to an analysis conducted by the Watchdog Institute, a nonprofit investigative reporting center at San Diego State University.
KPBS, a media arm of the university, has the details on the Watchdog Institute's findings. One of the more interesting tidbits: although San Diego has 137 in-house city attorneys, including 27 in its civil litigation unit, since 2006 the city has spent more than $34 million on outside lawyers.
Some of those who spoke to Watchdog said that former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre bears the responsibility for some of those bills. In the spring of 2006, Aguirre threatened to sue two law firms--Vinson & Elkins and Willkie Farr & Gallagher--for malpractice.
Eventually, Aguirre hired his own lawyers--on contingency--for litigation in which he claimed both firms charged excessive fees and failed to meet deadlines on work the firms did related to the city's pension crisis. (A voicemail message left for Aguirre at his office--he now is in private practice after losing a reelection bid in November 2008--was not returned by the time of this post.)
But wasn't Aguirre the one who was fighting to reign in the billing rates of Am Law 100 firms doing work for San Diego, as The American Lawyer reported in November 2008?
In that story, reporter Ross Todd detailed Aguirre's suits against three firms--Vinson, Willkie Farr, and bond counsel Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe--for work they did related to San Diego's financial disclosure practices. Vinson paid $4.35 million to settle its role in the case in June 2008. Orrick paid $2.8 million in a similar settlement a month later. A case against Willkie Farr is pending. (Bryan Vess, a San Diego plaintiff's lawyer trying the case against Willkie Farr, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Patrick Swann, Jr., a partner at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps defending the firm.)
Since then Aguirre's successor, former local judge Jan Goldsmith, has told Watchdog that Aguirre's litigiousness contributed to a spike in San Diego's legal expenses and insurance rates. Goldsmith claims that Aguirre lacked confidence in his own lawyers, hired expensive outside lawyers, and made insurers nervous with his "sue happy" mentality.
One firm singled out by the Watchdog Institute for its billing rates is Latham & Watkins. Watchdog reports the firm has received $18 million for work it has done for San Diego over the past eight years, charging up to $750 an hour for its services.
Goldsmith also told Watchdog that when he took office in 2008 he was shocked by the amount of money being spent on outside counsel at firms like Latham.
"It was huge, and it was obvious that we had to rebuild the law firm...and make it to a point where we have confidence to handle these cases in-house," Goldsmith said. "It was a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars to use Latham & Watkins essentially as a division of the city attorney's office."
After Aguirre was voted out of office in November 2008, The Am Law Daily reported that Latham's role as "most-favored-firm status could be jeopardy." Goldsmith described the hourly rates charged by Latham lawyers as "outrageous," and noted that attorneys from his own office made only $49 an hour. Goldsmith told Watchdog he negotiated Latham down to $550 an hour on cases the firm already was handling, ones in which it would have been more costly to start over with new counsel.
A Latham spokesman disputed the hourly rates stated by Goldsmith, telling Watchdog that the firm's discounted hourly rates were closer to $400 per hour, with the current city attorney likely citing figures billed by senior lawyers at the firm. Latham noted its success in recovering legal fees from insurance companies for the city.
"A primary reason why municipal clients engage a firm of the caliber of Latham & Watkins is that we often save them money in the long run," the firm told Watchdog. "The total collections from insurance companies equal or exceed the amounts billed by Latham to the city for work since January 1, 2005--with approximately $18.5 million collected to date." (Latham stood by its statement to Watchdog when contacted by The Am Law Daily.)
Despite the firm's successes, Latham's yearly billings for San Diego have decreased from $11.9 million in 2009 to $2.7 million through October of this year, according to the Watchdog Institute report. Aguirre told Watchdog that the city council--not the city attorney--is responsible for hiring outside counsel. Latham, he told Watchdog, was first hired under his predecessor, Casey Gwinn.
"Isn't it funny how two years later it's still my fault," Aguirre said. "The idea of trying to blame me even two years later is so ludicrous. That just shows you how desperate they are."