Saying that lower pay is driving away experienced staff and sending a message from city officials that their work is less important, the Legal Aid Society on Tuesday called for city public defenders to be given pay parity with Corporation Counsel attorneys.
In a news release, Legal Aid, which was lobbying on behalf of all city defender organizations, called on the New York City Council to prioritize in its upcoming budget attorney-pay parity with Corporation Counsel, which is the city department staffed with lawyers who regularly defend the city and its agencies in civil cases. Corporation Counsel, also known as the Law Department, also represents the city in certain other matters.
“Our staff works relentlessly in courts and in communities on behalf of New York’s most vulnerable,” said Janet Sabel, CEO and attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, in the statement.
“But for far too long,” she continued, “they have been working at a financial disadvantage compared to the city lawyers who appear opposite them.”
“This inequality in pay deprives our staff of a sustainable living wage, impeding their ability to pursue careers as defenders,” Sabel also said.
Corporation Counsel did not respond to a request for specific comment on Legal Aid’s call for pay equality and its reasons for wanting the change.
But in email sent to the Law Journal late Tuesday afternoon, it said, “Our system of justice works best when all parties in litigation are represented by competent counsel. Fair compensation for those who represent indigent persons is a critical factor in recruiting and retaining effective lawyers.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Legal Aid’s call for pay equality.
In the news release, Legal Aid pointed to an analysis it had done of Corporation Counsel’s pay scale, stating that the analysis showed that Corporation Counsel can pay its attorneys with 10 years’ experience an estimated annual salary between $95,000 and $108,000.
Legal Aid said that estimated salary range was “significantly higher than defenders’ ability to pay their staff with the same experience level,” though the organization didn’t elaborate on public defender pay scales.
Legal Aid did not respond Tuesday to a request by the Law Journal for 10 years’ experience salary figures for city public defenders for a direct comparison.
The organization, which represents poor and sometimes destitute clients and is contracted by the city for its services, also noted in the release that it had reviewed retention rates for its criminal defense practice attorneys hired between 2007 and 2017.
We “discovered that, as the years of service and experience of staff increased, the rate of retention decreased, with the largest percentages of staff leaving between their fifth and 10th year of service,” Legal Aid said, adding that “by the 10th year, essentially half of that year’s hiring class—nearly 48 percent—had departed for other employers.”
It added that “brief reviews of Legal Aid’s Civil and Juvenile Practices revealed a similar trend, with lawyers exiting to jobs in city and state government.”
The organization did not respond to a request for comparable retention figures for Corporation Counsel lawyers.
At a City Council hearing held last October at which defender organization representatives and staff testified about lack of pay, Councilman Rory Lancman, chair of the Committee on the Justice System, publicly compared public defender and Corporation Counsel salaries, according to a Law360 report.
Lancman reportedly said beginning public defender pay ranged from $61,000 to $68,000, whereas Corporation Counsel lawyers started at $68,000. He also reportedly stated that defenders earn between $70,000 and $78,000 at the five-year point, whereas Corporation Counsel lawyers make $79,000.
In regard to starting salaries, recent graduates working for Legal Aid straight out of law school and who are awaiting bar exam results are paid $53,582; and upon passing the bar, their pay jumps to $62,730, according to a Law Journal story from last June. Corporation Counsel salaries start at $68,494, the Law Journal report also noted.
In addition, in June, Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge for the criminal defense practice at Legal Aid, said that the group receives a $108 million appropriation from the city for indigent legal defense and that appropriation had remained flat for the last six fiscal years.
Legal Aid, in its news release, also pointed to the October hearing, recounting how defender organization representatives and staff shared personal stories about how lack of pay had made their lives and jobs difficult—from making it harder to raise a family locally to having problems continuing to pursue their service careers.
Legal Aid also said that the representatives and staff had testified that pay disparity with their Corporation Counsel counterparts was sending a message that “their work and mandate is less important than that of the job performed by their adversaries.”
The organization specifically called for the City Council to prioritize public defender pay parity in the fiscal year 2020 budget.