Opinion: In Budgeting for Lawyers’ Salaries, NYC Can Support Equal Justice

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Michael Coghlan

Our justice system is replete with disparities. Assistant District Attorneys, who prosecute cases in Supreme and Criminal Courts, Corporation Counsel attorneys, who represent the city in delinquency cases in Family Court and who defend the city in lawsuits brought against NYPD, NYCHA, ACS and others, enjoy a courtroom setting that has long been slanted in their favor.

And even though Albany recently passed critical reforms to make our system more fair and just, there is still more that we must accomplish to secure the wholesale change needed.

But the disparities are not merely in the laws, nor do they end at the court house doors.

Government attorneys have another advantage over public defenders. Their salaries are dramatically higher than those paid to lawyers and staff at public defender organizations working on behalf of low-income clients. This problem is not new, but as these disparities grow, defender organizations are bleeding experienced lawyers and are struggling to attract new talent.

In New York City, nonprofit organization such as ours deliver critical legal services in criminal, civil, and juvenile courts and communities. Collectively our organizations employ over 4,000 people who represent more than 300,000 New Yorkers annually. In addition to representing clients in court, defender staff work day in and day out in the communities they serve and engage in broad-based impact litigation crucial to redressing pressing societal problems.

But this good work is increasingly in jeopardy as defenders continue to grapple with New York City’s exorbitant cost of living, as well as with their own crushing student loan debt.

Recently, we analyzed the retention rates of all the attorneys in our Criminal Defense Practice who were hired between 2007 and 2017. Sadly, but not surprisingly, as the years of service and experience of staff increased, the rate of retention decreased, with the largest percentages of staff leaving between their fifth and tenth year of service. By the tenth year, essentially half of that year’s hiring class – nearly 48 percent – had departed for other employers. Attrition in our Civil and Juvenile Rights Practices are, unfortunately, following this same path.

New York City’s Corporation Counsel’s office pays attorneys with ten years’ experience an estimated annual salary between $95,000 and $108,000. This salary range is significantly higher than what we are able to pay our attorneys with the same experience level. It’s also enough to keep pace with the cost of living and to meet school loan obligations. This reflects the city’s understandable commitment to retaining its own experienced advocates to skillfully represent its interests in court. The defender organizations want to do the same for our lawyers so that they, too, can provide the best services to the clients we represent.

The New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA) pays $98,824 to court attorneys with only three years’ experience. That’s because OCA also understands the need to keep pace with the cost of living and to keep experienced lawyers, who assist judges in discharging their responsibilities, working in the court system. Our lawyers, who advocate daily before those very courts, should not see their compensation lag so far behind.

In exit interviews, we hear the same story again and again. They want to stay; they love the work they do for their clients. Yet they cannot afford to continue to work for us. They are left with no choice but to leave.

As city budget negotiations continue, we have a proposal for Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson: pay the public defenders of this city the same salaries the City pays its own Corporation Counsel lawyers. OCA must also recognize the need for increased funding as well.

The members of our staff deserve no less. And, more importantly, our clients, the people of New York City, are entitled to the services of devoted public defenders who have the skill and experience to provide them with the vigorous representation that the Constitution requires and which, in a just society, they absolutely deserve.

Janet Sabel is the CEO and Attorney-In-Chief of The Legal Aid Society.

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