While Big Law salaries started to increase last month with some New York firms offering rookie lawyers up to $190,000 a year, public sector lawyers in Georgia and around the country are focused on much smaller numbers.
In Georgia, starting pay for prosecutors and public defenders is $44,828. Nationally, the median entry-level salary for a local prosecutor is $56,200 and $58,300 for public defenders, according to the National Association for Law Placement, which released its 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey last month.
Salaries for most Georgia prosecutors and public defenders have matched each other, since a move by the General Assembly two years ago. But, because the compensation systems were not linked until recently, prosecutors have lingering problems that public defenders do not.
Bert Poston, who chairs the state Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, said promotions for prosecutors were frozen in 2008 during the Great Recession. “We’ve never recovered from that,” said Poston, the district attorney for the Conasauga Circuit. He’s referring to veteran prosecutors earning less than they should be paid under a schedule based on years of experience.
Some large counties supplement prosecutors’ pay or fund prosecutor positions, but the practice varies widely, said Poston. He added that the General Assembly has funded some raises over the past 10 years, but some veteran prosecutors still endure salary compression, where they earn only a little bit more than less-experienced colleagues. By comparison, he also noted the starting salary for a Georgia state trooper, which requires a high school education and a training period, is $46,422—$1,594 more than rookie prosecutors.
Poston also pointed to a fact of life for many lawyers—law school debt. A 2015 survey showed Georgia prosecutors owe an average of about $100,000, and he said, “You just can’t get that paid off at that level.”
“I’ve lost a couple of good ADAs over the last couple of years because they simply could not afford to raise a family on what I was able to pay them, and I’m sure every other DA in the state could tell you similar stories,” Poston said.
Bryan Tyson, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council, said salary parity between most prosecutors and public defenders helped. “We were constantly trading people back and forth” as lawyers sought better pay, he said.
He said that, because public defenders have been paid according to the prosecutors’ pay schedule for only a couple of years, lawyers from his side of the courtroom are not behind in promotions like the prosecutors. “We don’t have the history they do,” he said,
Tyson said his office is aggressively recruiting lawyers, even though PD departments cannot compete with Big Law salaries. Public defenders, he’s quick to say, don’t have to keep track of billing hours and get robust training.
Most importantly, Tyson added, new lawyers “go right into court.”
“For a lot of people, that’s a very attractive thing,” said Tyson, who shared a video featuring public defenders extolling their commitment to their jobs.
On average, PDs stay about four or five years with the system, but Tyson argues there is a sustainable career path. “You can stay for the long term.”
Lizzy McClellan of The Legal Intelligencer in Philadelphia contributed to this article.