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Contracts from the federal government are a financial staple for plenty of industries and it turns out that law is no exception.
During the past five years, the government has awarded $3.3 billion to more than 4,700 vendors for legal work, according to data compiled by The National Law Journal. Much of the money was spent by the U.S. Department of Justice to help administer the federal program that confiscates property from criminals; for law enforcement training in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq; and for technical support in litigation, including cases involving Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Though it wasn't traditional lawyering that brought in the most money, Uncle Sam hasn't ignored attorneys. Nearly $400 million has flowed to private law firms since 2008. And firms among the NLJ 350, The National Law Journal's annual survey of the nation's largest law firms, have taken home the lion's share of the haul, pulling in more than $220 million.
Our data was compiled by the NLJ as part of a yearlong project to understand how much the federal government spends on outside legal services and who gets that work. To gather the data, we downloaded and analyzed more than 67,000 awards from USAspending.gov, a public database on federal spending maintained by the government. We searched broadly, taking in all of the contractors with work classified by the feds as "legal studies" and "legal services." We also included contractors who did work outside those classifications, but were identified as members of the legal sector. All of the contract amounts signify the most money contractors could have been awarded from the government, not necessarily the sums they received in each case.
Despite the publicly available information, federal contracting for legal services is rarely an open book: The work is conducted with little public scrutiny. And most of the contractors and government agencies contacted for this article declined to discuss the nature of the assignments, why they sought contracts or how the contracts were awarded.
Critics of the contracting process say the lack of transparency makes it hard for the public to know whether the government is spending more than it should on legal services. Project On Government Oversight general counsel Scott Amey, who co-authored a report in 2011 titled Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors, pointed to vendors who have had their contracts renewed year after year without question. Amey said it begs the question: Is the federal government "wasting taxpayer dollars?" On average, a U.S. government attorney receives an annual salary of $175,081, a private-sector attorney gets $220,924 and a contractor attorney takes in $554,923, according to Amey's report. "I think the federal government needs to see how many of these roles can be performed by career legal servants," he said.
That said, Amey's report estimates that the federal government spends more than $300 billion annually on service contracts, and the yearly bill for outside legal work is a minute fraction of that figure. Government officials also counter that they are able to reduce costs and better serve the public by hiring specialists. "The Department of Justice utilizes contractors to provide a wide range of services, including those of expert witnesses and litigation consultants, interpretation services and court reporting when necessary and cost effective to do so in order to effectively carry out its law enforcement mission," DOJ spokeswoman Gina Talamona said in a written statement. "Use of contracts gives the department the flexibility to increase or decrease contractor staff in response to work volume, changes in the type of work, and to rapidly obtain the services of appropriately qualified personnel."
The concept of cost effectiveness, however, becomes slightly abstract when $686.6 million is at stake. That's how much Forfeiture Support Associates LLC has been awarded in the past five years to take on clerical, financial and legal services for the DOJ as part of its Asset Forfeiture Program, which, as the name suggests, is designed to seize the assets of those who were involved in aiding or committing a federal crime.
Forfeiture Support is a joint venture of Engility Corp., a Chantilly, Va.-based provider of engineering and "mission support" services for the Defense Department, according to the company's website, and Los Angeles-based AECOM Technology Corp., which specializes in technical and management support services. And it is, by a factor of more than two-to-one, the legal services contractor with the largest award total of the past five years. Some 21 percent of all funds awarded for legal work went to Forfeiture Support.
The company hasn't been showy with its money: It is headquartered in a nondescript brick office building in Ashburn, Va., about 30 miles northwest of Washington. Most of the company's more than 1,500 employees work out of 450 government offices around the country. No company officials contacted by The National Law Journal would comment about the company's work for the DOJ. Charles Rash, Forfeiture Support's chairman and managing director, said questions should be directed to Engility spokesman Eric Ruff, who declined to comment. The closest thing to a public statement about the company's relationship with the government was a framed poster in the lobby of its office building saying that it is "committed to achieving on-going customer satisfaction."
The second-largest contractor is just a few D.C. suburbs away, in Arlington, Va. CACI International Inc. is an information-technology company that pulled in $384.3 million for providing the DOJ with "a wide range of professional services and products that help attorneys acquire, organize, develop and present evidence throughout the course of litigation, from pre-filing investigation, through complaint, discovery and trial, to post-trial briefs and the appeals process," according to the company's website. (Like other contractors, CACI declined to comment for this article.)