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When Stephen Hoffman was a young associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell back in 1970, he couldn’t have imagined the role he’d get his office mate, Frank Moseley, to play years later. Back then, the two were wrangling over who got the desk with the view; 30 years later, they were strategizing over how to guarantee the constitutional right to counsel in New York state. In a suit designed to combat what’s widely considered a crisis in legal representation of the poor, Moseley, now a Davis Polk partner, is suing New York on behalf of the group that until last year Hoffman presided over — the New York County Lawyers’ Association. The innovative maneuver, born of desperation, seeks to boost the fees paid to lawyers assigned to represent parents and children in family court and indigent criminal defendants. Those lawyers now make only $25 per hour out of court, and $40 an hour in court — fees set by statute in 1986, and the lowest set by law anywhere in the country. The result has been a critical shortage of lawyers to represent the poor in criminal cases and in family court. To make matters worse, New York relies far more than do many other states on private lawyers for these clients. About a third of indigent criminal defendants get private counsel. Hoffman, now a partner at New York’s Rosen & Reade, had watched the problem swell to constitutional proportions, but he knew that proving it would be an enormous undertaking. The first few firms the lawyers’ association approached refused. That’s when Hoffman pulled out the old Moseley connection; it worked. Since then, Davis Polk has had a core group of four associates working with Moseley on the case, and has pulled in others when the labor — which has included deposing judges and lawyers throughout the state, and retaining and preparing experts — has gotten intensive. “They’ve treated us as if we were their best client,” Hoffman says. It’s looking as though that client will need lots of attention this summer. In June, Davis Polk moved on behalf of NYCLA for an injunction to raise counsel fees immediately — to $100 an hour across the board. The attorney general has until late July to respond, and then the judge is expected to hear testimony and arguments in August. The firm is no stranger to the problems of New York’s criminal justice system. Last year Davis Polk investigated the consequences of the state’s notoriously harsh drug laws, capping the pro bono project with an extensive report recommending reforms that emphasized drug treatment alternatives to incarceration. The legislature has yet to act. If Davis Polk wins the fee case, it will have just gotten New York’s assigned counsel a 400 percent raise. Not bad in a sagging economy — though still only about one-third the billable rate of a typical Wall Street associate.

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