Jones Day, which had the largest load at about 21 organizations, represented most of the Catholic institutions. Jones Day partner Mickey Pohl confirmed that the firm handled all of the cases pro bono, but did not elaborate on the number of hours the firm poured in. Given the number of cases the firm was handling, it likely provided millions of dollars in legal services.
Becket handled cases from about a dozen religious institutions, including Little Sisters and Wheaton College. Becket deputy general counsel Luke Goodrich estimated that the contraceptive mandate cases that went to the Supreme Court took anywhere from 2,000 attorney hours to 4,500 hours—depending on how drawn out the lower court battles were.
He said Becket’s cases typically have attorneys who have rates from $400 to $800 an hour. So according to his estimate, the market value of taking one of the nonprofit mandate cases from lawsuit to the Supreme Court could range from about $1 million to $2.5 million. Several of Becket’s nonprofit mandate cases went to the Supreme Court, including cases from Wheaton College, the Little Sisters, and East Texas Baptist University—a huge success for a firm that has about a dozen lawyers.
First Liberty Institute handled cases for six religious nonprofits. The firm estimated that its attorneys invested about 2,400 hours on the mandate cases, adding up to about $900,000 in services. The Alliance Defending Freedom handled cases for about 16 religious institutions, including Dordt College and Biola University, but did not return a request for comment on the hours of services it provided. Last year Clement’s firm Bancroft did 6,000 hours of pro bono work, or about 355 hours per attorney. At Clement’s rate, that’s a market value of about $480,000 of his donated time.
At firms like Becket, lawyers aren’t making their market rate of $400 to $800 an hour, so the actual costs are lower. Becket’s top attorneys—Harvard Law graduates and former circuit court clerks—have salaries of about $160,000, according to the group’s tax documents. That’s well below what they would make in the private sector, but it’s about equivalent to the salary of a senior government lawyer.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY CASES can take time. For nine years, Becket, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and private firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry handled a case defending the Stormans family in Washington state. The Stormanses owned a pharmacy called Ralph’s Thriftway. A new state rule required the family pharmacy to stock abortifacients, but the family objected because they believe life begins at conception.
The battle with the state over the course of nine years racked up millions in legal costs. At one point about five years into the litigation, when the pharmacy owners had won their case at one federal court, the firms representing the Stormanses filed a motion to recover their fees and costs of about $2.7 million.
But that wasn’t the end of the case. After more years of back-and-forth in the lower courts, the Supreme Court rejected the family’s appeal, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against the family was final. The family’s lawyers couldn’t win back attorneys’ fees.
Sometimes it goes the other way. Goodrich, Becket’s deputy general counsel, was one of the lead attorneys in a recent case defending Native Americans who use eagle feathers for religious rites. Becket won the case, and also won a $500,000 settlement to cover attorneys’ fees over the course of the litigation.
When Hobby Lobby won its case against the mandate at the Supreme Court, the other for-profit plaintiffs were able to recover some of their costs. They all settled costs privately with the government. That’s the ideal approach for lawyers, to negotiate between attorneys on fee settlements rather than discussing their fees publicly in court.
Were the millions in dollars in litigation costs worthwhile? Goodrich says yes and points to the precedents potentially set. In 2012, for instance, Becket won a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC that preserved the right of religious organizations to make their own hiring and firing decisions.