The Legal Aid Society, New York City’s largest provider of indigent criminal defense services, said relatively low salaries are to blame for difficulties in retaining talent and is calling for more funding from the city government to increase public defenders’ paychecks.

Legal Aid’s starting salary for entry-level attorneys who have passed the bar is just over $62,700, which is comparable to first-year pay at some of the city’s district attorneys’ offices but lagging behind the office of the Corporation Counsel, which is paying $68,494 to attorneys who graduated this year.  

Under state law, the New York City government has sole responsibility to fund indigent criminal defense services; in addition to Legal Aid, the city also contracts with The Bronx Defenders, the New York County Defender, Brooklyn Defender Services, Queens Law Associates and the Neighborhood Defender Service to provide lawyers for poor defendants.

The city is spending about $291 million on contracting service providers in its current fiscal year, of which Legal Aid receives more than $108 million.

“The city’s support for Legal Aid recognizes the critical work that they do to provide affordable and fair representation to New Yorkers,” said Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.  

But Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge for Legal Aid’s criminal defense practice, said the agency’s funding from the city has received only small increases each year over the past several years as costs have increased.

This year, city lawmakers signed off on giving the city’s five district attorneys offices more than $15 million in additional funding, of which about $5.5 million would be used for boosting pay; Luongo said Legal Aid asked for an additional $3 million and was unsuccessful.

The Bronx District Attorney’s Office, for instance, was able to use its $2 million in new funding to boost salaries for first-year, bar-admitted attorneys up to $69,000, said Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokeswoman for the office.

But despite the city’s relative generosity to the DAs, Luongo said she’s not doing any “finger pointing” at the DA’s offices.

“I share their concerns that it’s almost impossible to keep people in our offices,” Luongo said.  

In addition to their relatively low pay, Legal Aid attorneys face the same financial pressures faced by young attorneys across the city: they live in one of the most expensive cities in the United States and are swamped in student debt. 

Ray Queliz, a fourth-year staff attorney at Legal Aid’s office in Queens and a New York Law School graduate, for example, said he makes more than $67,000, but is still paying back that $200,000 in combined debt he accumulated from law school and his undergraduate years.

Queliz said he is fortunate enough to have married another lawyer and thus stay in public service law, but said he’s seen a significant number of his colleagues leave after they’ve been there about as long as he has, off to find greener financial pastures.    

“It’s kind of frustrating because people do like the work but they can’t afford to stay here,” Queliz said.

Diane Akerman, a staff attorney in Legal Aid’s Manhattan office who has been with the agency for five years and who said her salary is “just shy” of $70,000, said she knows colleagues who take odd jobs like bartending, tutoring and coaching soccer to make ends meet

Akerman said attorneys in the three-to-seven year range of their tenures also tend to be at the time of their lives when they want to start families, which creates something of a gap between the relatively new attorneys and the veterans. “That’s when working here kind of becomes impossible,” Akerman said.

The New York City Council’s Committee on the Justice System is set to hear from indigent defense agencies, including Legal Aid and The Bronx Defenders, as well as from district attorneys’ offices about pay issues at a hearing sometime next month.

“Public defenders make sure that the right to counsel, which is both constitutionally guaranteed and morally required, is more than just an empty promise in New York,” said City Councilman Rory Lancman, chair of the committee, in a written statement. “Just as they would never shirk their responsibility to a client, we cannot shirk our responsibility to adequately fund their representation of New Yorkers.”