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Tribal legal economics 'vary dramatically'

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NEW YORK - The economics of being a tribal lawyer "vary dramatically," according to attorney Cate Stetson.

The Albuquerque, N.M.-based lawyer declined to make any national estimates on how much tribes may be paying for legal services, saying that most of that information would be considered confidential, but was willing to speak about the wide variations in the niche in more local terms.

For one thing, said the attorney, who has specialized in tribal issues for more than two decades, fees for services rendered to firms such as hers and others can vary from $500 into "the six figures and more."

Tribal needs vary greatly, she noted. Some tribes can generate a lot of business for a short term, and then drop off the radar screen. Stetson said one tribe represented 40 - 50 percent of her company's income one year, before tailing off dramatically.

Legal charges in Indian country can vary dramatically as well, from $150 - $200 per hour for a firm out in the heartland, compared to as much as $400 - $600 per hour for a high-powered Washington or New York firm with a niche in Indian law.

The level of commitment tribes get from their lawyers also can vary tremendously, she said. "Some of them (tribes) get so much for their money, and some of them get so little."

Twenty years ago when she was just starting out, there were so few American Indian lawyers "you could name all the (Indian) people who were tribal attorneys," according to Stetson. One was Rick West, Cheyenne, now director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and previously a partner with her in a predecessor firm to the one she heads now.

Now, "it's just a different world," she said, with more of a need for tribal attorneys, many more Indian lawyers, and many more firms thinking they can get a piece of a lucrative business fueled by casino money.

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Some of those DC firms may have stumbled when they got into the niche, though, she said, especially if they represented a lot of clients on the other side of the legal fence from their Indian clients, like developers, or non-Indian gaming companies that would give them a conflict of interest.

"It doesn't necessarily make you a lot of money," she said of being a non-Washington based tribal attorney, especially if a company does a lot of pro bono (free) work for deserving but financially strapped clients.

Back when she started, tribal attorneys were mostly white people "doing it out of a sense of joy" and to help the unrepresented, and many remain in the field today. "Indian country is full of law firms doing it for 20 years or more," she said. "They believe in helping people," she maintained. "There's a fervor there."

She remembered that when she joined the law firm headed by Kevin Gover, the Clinton-era head of the BIA, attorneys would have to take a pay cut to prove their commitment to this kind of work.

Back then, one attorney might be able to handle all a tribe's legal needs. But now, such a generalist is far less likely, as tribal attorneys specialize in gaming or other areas such as environment, taxes, or economic development.

And she warned that some have been attracted by the large amounts that can be made in the gaming areas, so that tribes need to guard against being ripped off. "There are unsavory people out there," she said, and "tribes are a target, especially poor tribes."

Stetson said she employed about a dozen attorneys at her firm, Stetson Law Offices P.C., which she started in 1997. The firm represents tribes and tribal agencies in about 10 states. She is former managing partner of Gover, Stetson & Williams (West was a partner at one time).

In addition to gaming, taxes, environmental and economic development, her firm advises tribes on housing, legislative and lobbying matters.

Stetson received her law degree from the University of New Mexico and began practicing in tribal law in 1982.