High-Priced Lawyers & More




Click here to read the contract that shows Harrell and Chambliss lawyers are paid $32,500 per month, that's $390,000 per year or, for a 365.25 day year, $1,067.76 per day(!) or $1,494.87 per work day... (with a hat-tip and a high five to John R. Butcher for his chart and excellent assistance on this)!



If only the Richmond Public School Board (RPS) and RPS Superintendent Yvonne Brandon, were capable of honesty and possessed of enough maturity to admit to making mistakes -- instead of relentlessly making-up excuses and blaming others for their failures -- Richmond citizens just might stand half-a-chance at having a public school system that can achieve some substantive and sustained academic and financial improvements.

However, remarks made by RPS School Board chair Kim Bridges and vice-chair Dawn Page in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch story about the exorbitant legal fees RPS pays to a private law firm, the likelihood that the Board and/or Brandon will ever find the IQ, EQ or political will to do that, is roughly akin to the odds that Santa and all his reindeer will slide down my chimney on Christmas Eve.

Bridges, given to flinging true (but irrelevant) factoids when pressed by reporters or irate citizens, stunningly outdoes herself in the RT-D story by reporter Zachary Reid. Rather than admit any error or lapse of judgment on her part, the board's or the administration's, Bridges manages to twist the truth and blame the families who had to sue the School Board for handicapped accessible schools.   More than 20 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by former President George H.W. Bush, RPS proceeds at a snail's pace implementing the terms of a Settlement Agreement the board unanimously approved in 2007.


The cost of defending this lawsuit has been covered by the School Board's insurance policy with AIG.  Hired by AIG, lawyers William Bayliss and Ed Dillon from the firm of Williams and Mullen have been the legal team on the frontline.  Since this cost is covered by the AIG policy, there is no rational basis for Bridges or Page to claim that the ADA was a factor in the board's decision to pay the Harrell and Chambliss law firm a base retainer of $32,500 per month -- a whopping 269 percent raise -- that works out to more than $1,000 per day, or $390,000 per year.  According to Bridges:
"We're the only ones in the region navigating a systemwide (handicap-accessibility) settlement with hundreds of projects, overseeing a charter school and implementing best authorizing practices, proposing improvements to the state charter law, examining the use of historic tax credits for school renovations, or determining the use of per-pupil funds for the charter's construction loans, just to name a few examples," she said. "These are not issues facing Henrico, Hanover or Chesterfield, so I wouldn't expect them to spend time or money figuring them out."
Whether one characterizes her comments by the more genteel nomenclature such as "spin," "nuance," or "plain ignorance," it is clear that Bridges (and her handlers at RPS) hope that some mumbo-jumbo finger-pointing at the ADA, the Patrick Henry Charter School and Paul Goldman's praiseworthy work on changing historic tax credit law to benefit school districts in Virginia and across the nation will somehow absolve them of the responsibility for wasting so much money on legal fees.


Bridges is so desperate to deflect criticism that she willingly tosses aside any hope of regional cooperation when she takes this swipe at our neighboring public school systems:  "These are not issues facing Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield, so I wouldn't expect them to spend time or money figuring them out."  Ouch. 


Rather than perform any cost analysis or critical assessment of the legal services provided by Harrell and Chambliss, Bridges and Page are convinced that the firm deserves to be paid more than $1,000 a day, every day, including weekends, national holidays, school vacations and teacher planning days. 


Were the board ever to undertake a serious and detailed analysis of the legal services provided in order to make a data-driven decision, they might ask why it is with two lawyers paid by AIG and one on staff, what part of $1,000 per day does RPS need to spend to "navigate" its long-delayed compliance with the ADA?  Were the board ever to undertake a serious and detailed analysis of the legal services provided in order to make a data-driven decision, they might ask why it is that:


(1.) "We're the only ones in the region navigating a systemwide (handicap-accessibility) settlement with hundreds of projects ... (a.) Had the Harrell & Chambliss lawyers been doing their jobs properly, they would have informed the School Board back in 1990 (when Congress first passed the law) and in 1992 (when the law came into effect) that the school system's buildings needed to be brought into compliance with the Virginia Disabilities Act (VDA) and the American Disabilities Act (ADA).  Such proactive legal advice would have thus eliminated the need for a group of RPS parents and children to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in 2006 on behalf of family members and children with disabilities; 
(b.) as noted, when that lawsuit was filed, the School Board's insurance policy with AIG kicked in and William Bayliss and Ed Dillon with Williams Mullen law firm were assigned by the insurance company to handle the legal defense once the School Board paid a $25,000 deductible to AIG; (c) the School Board also currently pays a lawyer -- Valarie Abbott-Jones -- to serve as the ADA coordinator.  Abbott-Jones is tasked to work directly with the plaintiffs and the board to ensure that the terms of the Settlement Agreement are met; (d.)  So, with two lawyers paid by AIG and one on staff, what part of $1,000 per day does RPS need to spend on Harrell Chambliss lawyers to "navigate" its long-delayed compliance with the ADA?

(2.)  "....overseeing a charter school and implementing best authorizing practices, proposing improvements to the state charter law..."   What part of $1,000 per day do they need to spend on trying to kill off Patrick Henry School for Science and Arts charter school, the first elementary charter school in Virginia that is doing a terrific job and whose only fault is it is that first elementary embarrassing RPS;

(3.) " ... examining the use of historic tax credits for school renovations ..."  Oh, my ... even stupider than paying Harrell Chambliss more than $390,000 a year, is the decision to pay them to research the  use of historic tax credits for school renovations.  Given the number of lawyers in this town who are experts on historic tax credits and who would have gladly provided the research pro bono simply for the chance of getting any legal work that might come as a result, the Board and administration wasted not only money, but valuable time on this.  


Had the board and administration bothered to listen to Paul Goldman when he first appeared before a committee discussing this idea back in 2007, their support could have helped him push the idea further along.  As it stands today, Goldman deserves high praise for persisting in this effort, despite a lack of interest from RPS or the City of Richmond.  In a November 22 e-mail, Goldman noted;
The RTD story yesterday revealed, for the first time, that the Richmond School Board apparently paid money - I am not sure how much - to analyze an idea that is now part of the Warner/Webb/Cantor school bill before Congress, backed by Governor McDonnell, Tim Kaine and George Allen.  I speak of the Historic School Tax Credit bill to fix a glitch in the IRS code, SB 1685, introduced in October.  Yet to my knowledge, the School Board hasn't publicly done anything to help enact something that could save Richmond $several hundreds of millions of dollars, all money then available to for other pressing education needs.  Since they defended their excessive use of outside lawyers as being necessary, here is a case in point that  can be exhibit # 1. Or have they communicated to Richmond Congressman Bobby Scott and the state's two Senators privately? They need to come forward and explain what they paid, what they got, and what they did with the analysis afterward.
In this regard, Goldman is absolutely correct.  What did they pay, what did they get and what did they do with the analysis afterward?


And, lastly, Bridges her colleagues and Brandon apparently need a remedial history lesson on what happened following former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's failed and flawed attempt to evict the School Board out of City Hall.  Early on in the ADA matter,Wilder demanded that since Harrell & Chambliss  represented both the City of Richmond (in certain matters) and the School Board,  the firm could not represent both the city and the School Board.  The partners at Harrell & Chambliss obviously did the math and determined it was more to their advantage to represent the City than it was to represent the School Board.  Consequently, on the night of the Grand Eviction, the School Board was represented by State Sen. Henry Marsh [D-Richmond]


Thus, in the spirit of true cooperation, the Richmond City Council offered to have Brian Buniva, the private attorney they retained, represent the School Board at no charge to the School Board in the legal matters that resulted from the eviction.  This was an offer that the School Board couldn't refuse and it should serve as proof that the Richmond City Council and School Board can find ways to work together to consolidate resources that will drive more precious tax dollars into the classroom instead of into the bank accounts of lawyers. 
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The Richmond school system spends significantly more per student on legal fees than the other three large school districts in central Virginia.
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Richmond legal fees