billing lawyer rates (Photo: Sergey Mironov/Shutterstock.com)

Atlanta firms overall enjoyed healthy billing rate growth last year, with hourly rates up more than 5 percent, according to data derived from 1.7 million matters totaling $30 billion that were tracked by CounselLink, a LexisNexis subsidiary.

That’s up from a 2 percent hourly growth rate in 2016 for Atlanta attorneys in CounselLink’s database.

CounselLink also found that average billable rate growth for partners in the state of Georgia as a whole, at 5.6 percent, was higher than the national average of 3.2 percent last year.

However, the $340 median fee for Georgia partners was notably lower than in other states with top growth in partners’ hourly rates: California partners charged a $500 median hourly fee (5.4 percent increase), those in Oregon charged a median hourly fee of $410 (5.5 percent increase), and in Minnesota the median hourly partner rate was $400 (6.1 percent increase).

The CounselLink data did not break out median fees by city. However, more than half of the lawyers practicing in Georgia are in metro Atlanta.

Cities with the highest hourly rate growth last year were New York (5.7 percent), Seattle (5.2 percent), Minneapolis (5 percent), Chicago (4.7 percent) and Los Angeles (4.4 percent). The hourly billable rate growth for Washington, D.C., was 4 percent, according to CounselLink data.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Miami and Dallas saw hourly rate growth of less than 3 percent.

Rates Moved Revenue Needle

Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group found slightly higher annual rate increases for its basket of firms than the CounselLink findings—a national average increase of 3.7 percent, compared with the 3.2 percent hourly rate increase from the CounselLink data.

The lawyer rate increase for the 20 Southeastern firms in Citi’s sample was a bit lower than nationally, at 3 percent. Citi does not break out Atlanta or Georgia firms in its survey.

The bank noted in its year-end review of the industry that rate increases—not higher demand for legal services—continued to drive revenue growth.

Those results were similar to Citi’s nine-month findings for 2017: National hourly rates increased 4.1 percent on average through last September, with slightly lower increases in the Southeast of, on average, 3.1 percent for the 18 firms reporting.

For the Citi survey, taken after the third quarter of 2017, 183 large firms participated, including 80 Am Law 100 firms, 49 Second Hundred firms and 54 niche or boutique firms.

M&A Lawyers Make Biggest Bucks

Perhaps unsurprisingly, CounselLink found that partners at large firms charged higher hourly rates, with a national median fee of $573 for the largest 50 firms, defined as those with 750 or more lawyers.

By contrast, the median hourly rate for partners at firms with 51 to 100 lawyers was $303. The figure dropped to $230 for firms with 50 or fewer lawyers.

Nationally, partner hourly rates varied widely by practice area, ranging from a median rate of $678 for M&A partners to $195 for insurance defense lawyers, according to CounselLink data.

Other areas with a median partner hourly rate of more than $500 were corporate ($595), regulatory and compliance ($576), and intellectual property ($545).

Practice areas where the median hourly partner rate was below $400 were real estate ($394), litigation ($360) and environmental ($338).