A recent national study has found that pay for prosecutors and public defenders has barely budged since 2004. The situation is only a little better in Connecticut, where the public sector attorneys last got a raise in 2009.
But that’s about to change. Next summer, Connecticut prosecutors and public defenders are slated to receive a 3 percent raise, adding about $1,850 annually to the current entry level salary of $61,900. Veterans with 10 years experience will see salaries increase from about $91,600 to about $94,000.
Jack Doyle, a prosecutor and president of the Connecticut Association of Prosecutors, the bargaining unit for the 250 prosecuting attorneys in the state, calls the raise overdue. He notes that other state workers have, overall, averaged 3.5 percent annual pay increases over the past decade.
“I can tell you prosecutors do believe they are underpaid and undercompensated, based on their jobs and what they do,” Doyle said. “We don’t get compensatory time or overtime or extra duty pay that police get. At the same time, prosecutors have been threatened, harassed and even attacked.”
The issue of salaries for court personnel recently came to a head in Connecticut when Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers requested an 11 percent pay raise for judges next July, followed by 5.5 percent increases in each of the next three years. Her proposal, which was met with sharp questions by a newly formed Judicial Compensation Review Board, calls for Superior Court judges to go from earning $146,780 currently to $191,890 in 2017.
Rogers notes that Connecticut judges have not had a pay increase in five years and that their current salaries rank them 45th nationally, when adjusted for the cost of living. She says comparatively low salaries are driving experienced judges out of the court system and making it harder to attract top-notch lawyers to the bench.
The recent study, by the National Association for Law Placement, makes the same argument about low pay and the ability to attract and retain public sector lawyers. After all, the study notes, the starting median salary at private firms with 50 or more lawyers is about $80,000. And some large firms continue to pay $160,000 to new associates, the NALP said.
New prosecutors and public defenders in Connecticut make nearly $12,000 more than the national median of $50,000, according to the NALP. After 10 years, Connecticut pay increases to $91,627, while the national average is $76,000. In Connecticut, someone with 20 years’ experience caps out at $129,000; the NALP did not provide a comparable figure.
While Connecticut salaries are significantly higher than the national average in raw dollars, the NALP does not factor in the cost of living in each state, as the judges’ rankings do.
LAW SCHOOL COSTS
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.”