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Faced with sharp criticism from New York state and county women’s bar groups, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice on Tuesday defended her decision to let go a dozen part-time women prosecutors unless they agree to work full time. In a statement released Monday, the state Women’s Bar Association said it “strongly disagrees” with Rice’s new policy. “DA Rice’s decision will not promote public confidence in her office or in the legal system,” said association President Elaine N. Avery. “It only shows that family is not an important item on her agenda.” All of the part-timers are mothers, although the DA’s office has said that some have older children. Rice fired back Tuesday, calling the women’s bar statement a “knee-jerk reaction” that failed to recognize the steps she has taken to place women in senior positions. The district attorney said two of the top three executive positions in her office are held by women, compared with none under her predecessor, Dennis Dillon, whom she defeated last November. She also said seven of the 14 management positions in her office are held by women, compared to just two under Dillon. “I think it is important to look at everything I have done in this office,” said Rice, who herself is a member of the Nassau County Women’s Bar Association. The local group also put out a statement critical of Rice. Members of both the state association and its county affiliate met with Rice to discuss the issue on June 30, but the meeting ended with Rice refusing to change her stance. She said a district attorney’s office is a “very unique office” that requires a special and time-consuming commitment among the attorneys who litigate and investigate criminal cases. “We’re dealing with life and death,” said Rice, who said full-time attorneys are better able to form the relationships with witnesses that are key to many trials. “You can’t have part-time litigators,” said Rice, adding that some of her part-time lawyers have been allowed to leave trials at 2 p.m. while the judge and the defense are still in the courtroom. Rice said her decision should improve the effectiveness of her office and thereby improve public safety. She also said it would help her cope with a county-imposed budget constraint that limits the number of lawyers she can hire to 170. The county calculates a part-time lawyer as equivalent to a full-time one. Thus, she said, the use of part-time lawyers has prevented her office from operating at full strength. Rice said she hoped to hire some new part-time lawyers within the next six months, although these new lawyers would not be allowed to work in the areas of litigation or investigation. ‘A family issue’ Despite Rice’s comments, Avery said her group stood by its position. “This is not just a woman’s issue — it is a family issue,” said Avery, adding that while part-time attorneys may face some unique challenges that does not mean they cannot do the job. Avery said Rice’s promotion of women to executive positions “does not excuse her behavior” on the issue of part-time lawyers. “She’s forgetting about her responsibility as a role model,” Avery said. Rice took exception to the notion that she was undermining women’s rights. She instead accused the bar groups of engaging in scare tactics that would discourage women from seeking employment at the Nassau County district attorney’s office. “They’re doing a great disservice to young women,” Rice said. Avery said her organization will soon conduct a statewide survey of legal employers to see where they stand on the needs of employees with family care issues. Based on the results of the survey, Avery said her group will launch a campaign to promote and protect the rights of employees who need part-time and flex-time employment to help deal with family care issues. Other agencies Representatives of several prosecutors’ offices said they allow some attorneys to work part time in various positions. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office has four part-time attorneys on staff, while the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has 12 part-time lawyers. The Staten Island District Attorney’s Office has a policy of allowing part-time attorneys, although none are currently on staff. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York allows part-time attorneys, but a spokesman for the office declined to say how many part-timers it currently employs. Sam Weisberg and Lindsay Kennedy contributed to this story.

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