While most lawyers who take on assigned counsel cases do so only once or twice a year to earn extra cash or courtroom experience, one law firm has turned the state-contracted work into a niche practice area.

Ruane Attorneys, which has offices in Shelton, Wethersfield and Hamden, is best known for handling DUI cases. But James O. “Jay” Ruane said habeas cases assigned under the state program now make up about 35 percent of his associates’ workload.

“When somebody comes in for a DUI case, they don’t want a kid two years out of law school. They want me,” said Ruane. Assigned counsel cases provide “an opportunity for these young lawyers to get trial experience. Our record has proven not only are they getting experience, they’re getting results going up against seasoned prosecutors.”

The firm’s associates have handled habeas corpus cases for four years now, and they have at least 30 cases pending at any one time. But Ruane says his firm isn’t doing this for the money. In fact, it takes on the cases for $65 an hour — $10 below the standard rate the state pays other lawyers.

Ruane himself is a former public defender. When he went out on his own in 2000, he still took cases as a special public defender, the forerunner to the current assigned counsel. As Ruane’s own practice got busier, he didn’t have the time for the cases.

But in recent years, former summer associates would tell him they couldn’t find permanent work in the tough economy.

Ruane said it occurred to him that “if I were to get a certain number of habeas cases a year, I could essentially bring these new lawyers into my firm, and give them a job that covered their salary, benefits and allowed me and my father to teach the young lawyers the skills needed to survive as a small firm criminal practitioner.”

Ruane continued: “It was a win-win. Young lawyers got jobs handling criminal cases like they wanted. I could train them in the trial skills and firm management skills they needed. And the state would supply the clients.”

Prompt Payment

Ruane said other firms are beginning to make use of the program in the same way. “The new assigned counsel system is fantastic,” he said. “We are being notified of new cases electronically. We submit our bills online and get paid timely.”

He said a new online payment system launched last month allows the firm to get paid within a week of finishing up a case.

Most of the cases that Ruane’s associates handle are fairly routine. Often, his lawyers simply talk to the client, tell them the plea deal they received was pretty good and urge them to drop their case. Only about one in 25 habeas cases “has any meat on it,” Ruane says. If a case does make it to trial, Ruane helps his associates prepare for the hearing and then sits with them in the courtroom.

He said while last resort habeas petitions are mundane work for an experienced criminal attorney, “wide-eyed” young attorneys eager for courtroom experience attack the cases “vigorously.” That attitude impresses the inmates they represent.

The practice pays off. After handling a number of cases over a couple years, the associates “know this stuff like the back of their hand. Like any [area of] concentration, as a lawyer you get good at it,” said Ruane.

As for notable results, this past summer Ruane’s firm scored a new trial for a man named Gene Newland who was convicted of sexual assault. The lawyers proved Newland, who represented himself at his criminal trial, should have been represented by a public defender.•