Connecticut prosecutors will get a 3 percent raise next summer as part of a three-year deal reached earlier this year. There are provisions for similar 3 percent raises for the next two years, through 2015. The state's public defenders, who are not union members and have no say in pay negotiations, get the same raises as prosecutors because of state law that requires equal pay for the two agencies.
Chief Public Defender Susan Storey said even though the newer lawyers in her office earn more than many of their peers in other states, the high cost of living in Connecticut puts a strain on finances. "The law school loans can be difficult for them to pay," Storey said. "They're really strapped."
NALP, which started tracking public lawyer salaries in 2004, took note of law school debt in its most recent study.
Since 2004, "the cost of legal education and the average amount of law school student loan debt have both risen at a much higher pace -- which means that despite favorable changes in the federal loan repayment options available to law school graduates working in the public interest, there are still significant economic disadvantages at play as law students consider whether or not to pursue public-interest legal careers," NALP executive director James Leipold said.
The NALP study also reported on salaries for legal services attorneys, like the ones that work at New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Greater Hartford Legal Aid and Connecticut Legal Services. According to the NALP, a starting legal services attorney can expect to earn about $43,000. Those salaries increase to about $65,000 after 11 to 15 years of experience.
At Connecticut Legal Services, the pay situation is "slightly worse than stagnant," said Steve Eppler-Epstein, the group's executive director. The nonprofit law firm, which provides legal help to low-income people in civil matters like evictions and small claims lawsuits, has a staff of 45 attorneys in seven offices.
Attorneys with CLS start out at $51,600 annually and earn a maximum of $101,000. But there have been no raises for any lawyers since 2008. Instead, lawyers working there have taken pay cuts of 5 percent to 20 percent since 2009. "It was part of our effort to avoid layoffs, which we were able to do, only because people took huge pay cuts over the past three years," Eppler-Epstein said.
He said keeping an office staffed with pay reductions is untenable in the long run. His hope is to pay his lawyers what public defenders and prosecutors earn. "We think that's at least where the pay ought to be," he said. "And we're lagging significantly behind that."
Doyle, the prosecutor, said pay increases are important in the public law sector, because they encourage talented employees to stick around. "The idea behind pay increases is we need to retain the people who really want these jobs," he said. "You don't want to have a system where someone is going to get trial experience and then leave to go into private practice because they haven't been given a raise in five years."