Briefcase brigade 

Big-city suits set up shop during W.R. Grace trial

Dozens of attorneys from some of the world’s most powerful law firms have made camp in Missoula’s plushest high-end condos and hotel rooms while representing W R Grace in federal court.

According to the court docket some 40 attorneys represent Grace and five of its former executives indicted by the government for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and Clean Air Act violations in one of the most significant environmental crime trials in history.

At least 200 deaths and thousands of illnesses have been related to exposure to asbestos unearthed from the vermiculite mine that operated in Libby for decades.

The big guns come from Kirkland & Ellis, the 11th largest law firm by revenue in the world, with earnings of about $1.3 billion in 2008, according to The American Lawyer. At least seven attorneys from the firm, led by David M. Bernick, have the job of trying to show that Grace did not knowingly expose its workers to asbestos.

Other firms representing former Grace executives include Mayer Brown (which advises 89 of the Fortune 100 companies and 35 of the 50 largest American banks), Weil Gotshal & Manges, O’Melveny & Meyers, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr—all of which rank in the top 25 largest firms in the world.

The battalion of barristers includes big name talent from Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, Seattle and elsewhere. And they don’t come cheap.

“Most big firm partners probably bill above $600 per hour, and all the way up to some attorneys that charge $1,000 per hour for these types of things,” says David Solander, a Missoula native and Sentinel High School graduate who is now an associate with another high-profile firm in Washington, D.C.

But Solander says compensation of attorneys on the defense team likely varies widely, and he suspects most charge no less than $300 per hour, not exactly a discount rate.

“For the most part, a first-year associate at one of these firms is going to make a considerable amount more than even very experienced lawyers in Montana,” Solander says. “It’s just the price discrepancy in the practices, especially in litigation cases like this.

“And all of their expenses are going to be essentially picked up by their client,” he adds.

Expenses like four months of rent for a furnished condo in the Wilma, where a platoon of lawyers affiliated with the case are staying, a boon to condo owners during a time of year—and in the midst of a recession—when it’s difficult to keep such luxe accommodations booked. The Wilma condos range in price from $700 to $1,600 per week.

Many more from the suit-and-tie set affiliated with the case have checked into the DoubleTree Hotel, where the prices are comparable.

“What’s really good for Missoula is all these people are, everyday, pouring hundreds of dollars—thousands probably—into our city, through restaurants, through shopping, through dry cleaning, through staying at our places,” says Kevin Arnot, a Wilma condo owner. “And that’s hot.”

He admits his sympathies lay with the prosecution. But “with this kind of economy we just have to do everything possible to give good service,” he says. “We’re merchants. We don’t have an ax to grind. We’re here to provide good service.”

Karen Marsolek, another Wilma condo owner renting to people affiliated with the case, says she’s thrilled to have renters during this quiet time of vacation travel.

“Certainly we’re happy to provide these individuals—who’ve really displaced their life for anywhere from three to five months, some of them, to come live in Missoula—and give them a space to live in,” she says. “Some of them will have spouses and children and family members visiting, and being close to the courthouse, where they can maintain those relationships while they are entrenched in the case, is a nice benefit.”

Local hotel, bar and restaurant owners and managers, out of respect for their clients, are tight-lipped about trial workers’ patronage. But in a town where a tucked-in flannel counts as business casual, slick-suited attorneys can be conspicuous, especially when walking down the street sipping from a Starbucks cup or picking up the check at Finn & Porter.

And why wouldn’t they? Whether they win or lose, their expense accounts have little chance of being overturned on appeal.
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