Every year the law department for the city of Birmingham, Alabama has the same goal – “To continue to decrease the number of cases referred to outside counsel and to continue to closely monitor those cases already referred by assigning various Assistant City Attorneys to monitory their progress.”
However, exactly the opposite has transpired. In the past five years “legal costs at the City of Birmingham have doubled from about $3.5 million to more than $7 million.” Nearly half of the new expenses go to outside lawyers, and the rest is the result of the legal department’s rising administrative costs.
Most of the outside legal fees have gone to the law firm of Burr & Forman. This is the firm where Michael Choy, a long-time friend and personal attorney of Birmingham Mayor William Bell, works as a partner.
A review of the City’s certified annual financial reports shows that Birmingham’s legal expenses were mostly flat from 2004 through 2008. But, since 2008 the legal expenses have risen dramatically and are now roughly double what they were back then.
In 2008, Mayor Larry Langford was elected, and the city’s legal costs started rising. Langford only lasted one year, and was “forced from office after his conviction of federal corruption charges in late 2009.” During his time in office he approved “$827,000 of outside legal fees.”
“The next fiscal year, 2010, Langford, interim Mayor Roderick Royal and Mayor Bell approved $760,000 of outside legal fees.” Approximately half of those fees went to one attorney – Michael Choy. Two of his contracts were approved, costing the city about $350,000.
Fast-forward to 2011, and Choy left his own firm to “join one of Birmingham’s largest law firms, Burr & Forman.” The lucrative contracts followed Choy to Burr & Forman, with the contract transfer approved by the council and Bell.
Bell and Choy have known each other since 1999, back when Bell was president of the Birmingham City Council. At that time Choy represented Bell’s coalition of council allies in a legal battle with then – Mayor Bernard Kincaid. Then, when Bell ran for Jefferson County Commission, Choy represented Bell in a court battle over the legality of the decision. Not long after Choy described Bell as his “longtime friend and client.”
It is clear Bell views Choy as a good friend as well. Since Bell became mayor, the city has approved almost $2.7 million in legal fees for Choy’s new firm, Burr & Forman, more than any other law firm. “Last year, the city approved more legal fees to Burr & Forman than all other outside lawyers combined.” A breakout of legal fees paid to Burr & Forman “specifically named Choy’s name . . . in the line item for Burr & Forman.”
Birmingham utilizes a single schedule of rates with most of the firms it works with. Partners of outside counsel can bill at $250.00 per hour, associates at $190.00 and paralegals at $75.00. Per city invoices, Burr & Forman “billed a total of 5,007 hours, . . . most of it at the $250 per hour partner rate.” Choy billed almost 1,500 of those hours for an average of 29 hours per week.
In addition to outsourcing more cases, the city’s administration costs have risen too. Back in 2009, administrator salaries totaled $264,370, this year they total $1.9 million.
According to City Attorney Thomas Bentley, the city relies on outside counsel to represent it in civil and constitutional rights claims brought against it. He says private firms are instrumental in defending the city in employment and labor law cases.
“Unfortunately, complex labor law and environmental law are areas where it would be hard for us to attract experienced competent counsel,” he said. “The private marketplace has established a level of compensation for this type of legal talent which the merit system does not allow us to provide.”