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How Much Do Top Supreme Court Lawyers Make? An Absurd Amount

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

We wrote last week about the small handful of lawyers who have had the most success as litigators before the Supreme Court, literally getting the Justices to adopt their words as the Court's own. Those ten attorneys stand out among even the most elite of Supreme Court practitioners, dominating an already small cadre of 66 lawyers who control Supreme Court litigation.

Of course, their expertise -- and success -- doesn't come cheaply. A single hour with the top Supreme Court litigators costs more than the average American family earns in a week.

A Top Ten With Top-Dollar Hourly Rates

Supreme Court litigation isn't a poor man's game. The nation's top litigators can easily command top rates -- rates so high that they're absurd. First, who are those lawyers? A recent study of merits briefs by USC Ph.D. candidate Adam Feldman found that ten regular Supreme Court practitioners had unprecedented success at getting their language picked up and used in Supreme Court opinions.

Those lawyers could be considered the "Top Ten" of Supreme Court litigators. Chief Justice Roberts is, appropriately, at the very top. When he was in private practice, he had a greater likelihood of linguistic overlap than any other regular SCOTUS litigator. Of course, now that he's on the Court itself, he makes much less than his former colleagues. The Chief Justice pulls in a paltry $223,500 a year -- small beans compared to the others on the list.

You'll Get a Deal at $1,000 an Hour

It's not unusual for top Supreme Court litigators to charge over $1,000 an hour for their work. To put that in perspective, the median American family income is just under $1,000 a week. The highest hourly rate that FindLaw was able to find was Theodore Olson's. Olson, the eighth most successful litigator by Feldman's measure, had the very highest billing rate: he charged $1,800 for an hour of his time.

Some of Olson's colleagues seem almost affordable in comparison. In 2010, the most successful Supreme Court litigator after Justice Roberts, Carter Phillips, was typically charging $1,100 an hour. That's the same rate as Thomas Goldstein and a bit under that of Paul D. Clement, who charges $1,350 per hour.

Costs as Cause for Concern

Last December, an analysis by Reuters revealed that just 66 lawyers dominated the Supreme Court docket and raised concerns that the high costs of successful SCOTUS lawyers kept less-moneyed litigants away from top talent. (Disclosure: Reuters is a FindLaw sister company.) Justice Ginsburg, for example, noted that "business can pay for the best counsel money can buy. The average citizen cannot. That's just a reality."

Fortunately, at least one top Supreme Court attorney was not primarily a corporate lawyer. Laurence Gold, the third most successful SCOTUS attorney identified in Feldman's study, typically represented labor interests. Hourly rates for Gold weren't available. However, Gold had previously worked as General Counsel for the AFL-CIO, from 1981 to 1995. In 2013, that position was paying $165,100 annually, or a relatively modest rate of about $80 an hour for a 40 hour week.

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