Melanie Griswold took a substantial pay cut when she moved to Santa Clara County, Calif., and started prosecuting crimes. A former King & Spalding litigation associate and Harvard Law grad, Griswold says she earns half as much as a deputy district attorney.
But she isn't complaining.
"I would've come to the DA's office and worked as a volunteer for free if I had to do that to get a job," she says. "I knew it was what I wanted to do."
Griswold is in good company: The Santa Clara DA's office is in the midst of a hiring boom. And its top-of-the-scale pay -- and the still relatively weak legal economy -- means it can be highly selective in its hiring. In the past year, the office has hired 14 lawyers but still has 12 slots to fill -- and 700 people have applied. Jay Boyarsky, the chief assistant district attorney charged with running the selection process, credits the county Board of Supervisors for understanding that "if you want to be able to hire the finest attorneys, to a certain extent, you're going to have to compete with jobs in the private sector."
The hiring boom has given DA Jeffrey Rosen an early chance to reshape the office. "I think hiring is really one of the most important things that I'll do as DA," he says. "If I hire the right people, there's not a lot I'll need to do in the office. If I don't hire the right people, there's not a lot I can do to make the office great."
Rosen has so many vacancies to fill in part because this year the county funded seven new positions. Meanwhile, Boyarsky says, an "aging workforce" has brought a flurry of retirements. Rosen said he set aside the "hire list" he inherited, despite pressure to hire quickly (lest the county close an open slot, or overworked attorneys revolt), and set out to find new talent. Boyarsky and two other assistants spend approximately 100 hours screening applicants in each hiring round.
"Jeff has put an increased emphasis on ethics in terms of Brady evidence," Boyarsky says, referring to exculpatory material in criminal cases, which "makes screening applicants really labor intensive."
It's a problem other DAs can only wish they had.
Contra Costa County, Calif., DA Mark Peterson says his budget has been slashed and the county has frozen hiring of permanent employees.
With an annual staffing budget of $78 million, Santa Clara pays its entry-level deputy DAs a starting salary of $92,000. The top line prosecutor earns $195,000. In Contra Costa County, starting pay is around $81,000, says Deputy DA Thomas Kensok. The highest nonmanagers pull in around $159,000, but Kensok adds that all the attorneys are facing possible salary rollbacks in the future. In Alameda County, Calif., the range is $74,000 to $159,000. Orange County, Calif., prosecutor salaries start at $70,000 and top out at $162,000.
Santa Clara has 20 percent more people than Alameda County, but its DA's office has a 33 percent larger budget.
It helps to have the financial support of the Board of Supervisors, says Rosen. Earlier this year the board voted to spend $2.3 million in the 2012 fiscal year (and $4.2 million each fiscal year thereafter) to add 38 positions in the public defender and DA's offices to staff misdemeanor arraignment calendars, something Public Defender Mary Greenwood says she first suggested two years ago. Staffing misdemeanor arraignments is regular practice in large, urban counties, she says, and in 2009 she became concerned about the "much more serious collateral consequences" of misdemeanor charges, such as immigration repercussions.
"Part of what I also argued was that doing the right thing for the client is really consistent with what's right for everybody in a fiscal way, too," since having a lawyer at the outset gives a defendant more information about how to proceed with his or her case efficiently, she says.
The board voted unanimously to approve the expenditure.
Like the DA's office, the public defender's office is hiring to staff the arraignments. Greenwood says she received 400 applications for seven new attorney positions in her office.
The DA's office also receives a considerable amount of financial support from the state in the form of grants, particularly for the economic crimes unit, which prosecutes consumer fraud and environmental cases. Rosen says his team is "very aggressive" in prosecuting those crimes.
Scott Tsui, a supervising deputy DA who runs the economic crimes program, said the office received more than $4 million in grants from the state Department of Insurance last year to prosecute insurance fraud crimes, including mortgage fraud. The office also received a $1.9 million high-tech crime grant, which went to a task force made up of personnel from agencies across the San Francisco Bay Area.
For Deputy District Attorney Christopher Boscia, who was hired earlier in the year from the Contra Costa County DA's office, Santa Clara "had a great reputation in terms of integrity and, frankly, significantly more pay and job security." Boyarsky is quick to counter any suggestion that the office is overfunded: Its budget has taken a hit, he says, in each of the past 11 years. And he points out that the office has actually shrunk from a high of 224 lawyers to a low of 166 today even while the crime rate in the area has remained stable. But the relatively high pay, he acknowledges, means the office can land Big Law litigators like Griswold. Boyarsky himself is a former Manatt, Phelps & Phillips associate.
"That job made me happy twice a month, on payday," he says. "We get a lot of people who have been working at firms for a few years and decide that they want to go into public service. And I think that's why it's important that we're able to pay well."
He's a "proud papa" of these accomplished public service converts and says veterans of the office joke that they don't have the credentials to get hired today.
Although the preference is to hire deputies who have minimal prosecutorial experience (rather than laterals from other DA offices), Boyarsky says the office has gotten a large number of applicants for deputy district attorney IV, which requires six years of experience and has a starting pay rate of $142,000.
"We hire a mix" of prosecutors, litigators and first-timers who have just passed the bar, says Boyarsky.
It's a different approach than the one taken in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, which don't hire many laterals at all.
Alameda County DA Nancy O'Malley says her office has hired just five in the past six years, and, according to Kensok, Contra Costa hasn't been recruiting -- it hires lawyers off of a civil service list, and they all, regardless of experience, start out at the minimum pay rate on a temporary basis. Then, if the budget allows, they're offered a three-year contract at a fixed salary. At the end of the three years, attorneys take an exam and "based on the available funds they may hire 1, 10 or none of the people in your class," says Boscia, who worked in the office for one year.
"That makes it very difficult to plan a life, to settle in, because you don't have any job security," says Boscia, who left to get that security at the Santa Clara DA's office. "Every year, [Contra Costa] loses some of their best people because of this issue." Boscia adds that he's earning 40 percent more in his current job.
"I don't know that it is that much different than in a lot of counties now that bring people on as temps," says Kensok of Contra Costa's temporary hiring. "This has been going on since Prop 13," which limited the property taxes counties can collect.
Kensok acknowledges that some people have left because of the temporary structure in previous years, but adds that "Santa Clara is really in a unique situation" to be able to offer such high pay and security.
Alameda County relies on its law clerkship program to recruit talent, and promotes from within. This year, O'Malley says they're swearing in four prosecutors out of a class of eight, after interviewing around 400 law students on campuses all over the state (and at Harvard).
"We're really creating promotional positions for people already in the office" rather than hiring laterally, O'Malley says. But she does note greater interest by would-be prosecutors. "The ability to be in a courtroom to do trials is something that's becoming more attractive" to students, she says. "Some kids who might not otherwise think about becoming a DA or a public defender or work in government service, they may be casting a wider net. People want jobs."
The new influx of young talent means Rosen has been tasked with mentoring and guiding the new prosecutors -- something this year's class says he's accomplished by giving them a great supervising deputy DA, James Gibbons-Shapiro. Earlier in the year, Griswold was working on her first or second case and was preparing for a misdemeanor trial. She says one morning Gibbons-Shapiro came by her office with a handwritten list of notes he said he'd thought of in the middle of the night.
The ideas were great, she said. But more than that, "It showed me that somebody cares" about her professional development.
For Boscia, the opportunity to interface with high-level people outside of the office has been a boon. Boscia worked on a DUI case earlier this year where the defendant challenged the blood-alcohol content tests. Boscia said he was able to delve deep into the science for what turned into a three-week trial. "I don't think in a lot of other offices you get a chance to interact with scientists like I did on this case," he says.