By Adam Andrzejewski
The Trump administration’s success cutting red tape and regulation didn’t reduce the number of federal lawyers, whose ranks swelled to all-time highs during the former president’s tenure.
In President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the administration scaled back the size, scope, and power of the federal government by reducing regulations as part of his signature promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.
Spearheaded by Neomi Rao at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the administration cut more than one-third of all regulatory text, reducing the number of pages in the Federal Register from 97,000 pages to 61,000 – in their first year.
It was a stunning reversal of the regulatory state. However, new analysis by our forensic auditors at OpenTheBooks.com shows that the effort to scale back regulations did not result in fewer federal lawyers.
However, by 2019 - the latest year available- the number of federal attorneys increased to 35,940, and taxpayer costs topped $5.2 billion in salaries and bonuses alone. We found that 200 federal agencies employed at least one lawyer—including at the National Foundation On The Arts and Humanities, which employed eight.
Even the Marine Mammal Commission employed a lawyer who made $166,500 in basic pay.
Here are some other key statistics:
- The average federal lawyer earned $200,000 when adding in the cost of benefits.
- If the feds were a private law firm, they would employ more lawyers than the top-10 largest domestic law firms combined.
- More than 37% of federal lawyers work in Washington, D.C.
- The Justice Department employs about one of every three federal lawyers while another 198 agencies employ two-thirds of all federal attorneys.
- Growth in positions could be attributable to new laws. During 2017-2019, Congress passed 443 laws, the most since the 2007-2009 period (460). (Lawyers help agencies implement legislation.)
Justice Department (DOJ)
The DOJ employs 11,592 lawyers—the most of any single agency. If the agency were a private-sector law firm, it would be three times larger than any firm in the world.
The highest salary of $213,600 was earned by Attorney General William Barr. All other disclosed DOJ lawyers topped out at $192,300 in basic salary. However, 1,084 lawyers received award pay up to $37,920, and 75 lawyers received awards between $4,000 and $37,920.
During the Mueller Special Counsel probe of Russian meddling in the election and investigation of President Trump, Robert Mueller and six investigating attorneys made $161,900 each. These included Jeannie Rhee, James Quarles, and Aaron Zebley.
In 2019, the top-paid lawyer at Justice was Michael Raab, who made $230,220 as a “general attorney” based in Washington, D.C. His base pay was $192,300, and he collected another $37,920 in “award” pay.
A spokesperson for the DOJ said, “Mr. Raab is a career [senior executive service] executive who was the recipient of a Meritorious Presidential Rank Award in 2018, an award that provides, per federal statute… a cash award equal to 20 percent of an SES executive’s annual salary.”
What’s more, the lawyer corps at the DOJ is growing. As fraud in the federal Paycheck Protection Program and other Covid-19 aid programs runs rampant, the DOJ stripped power from The Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, which was overseeing federal stimulus programs.
With salaries as high as $294,297, the highest paid federal lawyers were employed by financial agencies such as the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA), Farm Credit Administration, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
Of all federal attorneys, Alfred Pollard in the FHFA took home the highest salary: $294,297. In the same agency, David Lee pulled in $290,981, and Christopher Curtis took home $290,353. The agency pays its employees not with taxpayer money but with fees collected from the entities it regulates.
In 2019, both Wendy Laguarda and Charles Rawls made $289,421 working in the Farm Credit Administration, which regulates the financial institutions that give farmers credit.
Of the top 33 highest paid attorneys in federal agencies in 2019, 21 worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, earning between $273,400 and $283,700.
There were 4,037 attorneys in the Social Security Administration; 2,017 in the Department of Treasury; and 1,832 in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Environmental Protection, Internal Revenue Service, Labor and Education
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employed 1,639 attorneys for a total annual payroll of $232 million. The Trump Administration added an additional 239 lawyers, and the Biden Administration proposed adding $80 billion in tax enforcement budget to the agency.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employed 973 lawyers for a total cost of $144 million in 2019. If the EPA were a private law firm, the agency would be the 32nd largest in the world. During the Trump years, only 50 positions were cut.
The Labor Department had 603 attorneys, costing a total of $85.8 million—311 of whom earned $150,000 or more and 544 of whom made $100,000 or more.
Labor is receiving $2 billion to combat fraud in collecting unemployment benefits in 2021. However, the agency’s inspector general can transfer those funds to the Attorney General or the IRS to maximize investigations.
The Department of Education had 488 general attorneys, costing taxpayers $61.9 million, with an average pay of $127,089. There were 424 attorneys making $100,000 and 103 lawyers made $150,000 or more. During the Trump years, nine positions were added.
Commentators have worried that the legal market is oversaturated with too many lawyers, but the federal government is doing its best to make sure those J.D.’s have someplace to land after law school.
As Mario Puzo in The Godfather cautioned, “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”
Many times, those lawyers are out to protect the government’s interests, not the public’s.
Note: The payroll data in this piece is from FY2019, the latest year available from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management within the executive agencies.