Working as a New Jersey deputy attorney general doesn’t pay much – $55,945, compared with six figures in the private sector – but the benefits are terrific. The intangible benefits, that is.
The nub of Division of Law director Robert Gilson’s pitch to new recruits is that they’ll be sent directly to the trenches. While most law firm associates play secondary roles, division lawyers get into state and federal court right away, litigating a dazzling panoply of cases.
“The division covers almost every gamut of civil issue you can think of, including providing advice to all the state agencies,” said Gilson, who took over the 530-lawyer division six months ago.
Gilson has made hiring a priority. The division has 80 fewer attorneys than it did a year ago. Forty were laid off before he took office and the rest left on their own accord.
Gilson says he is not sure how many vacancies he will fill; he’s still taking an inventory of needs. But the sections that are adding lawyers, and their current attorney totals, are:
� The Division of Youth and Family Services practice group, which represents the agency in seeking supervision of abused and neglected children and termination of parental rights. The sections are 26-lawyer DYFS Central (Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Somerset); 27-lawyer DYFS Essex; 39-lawyer DYFS North (Bergen, Hudson, Morris, Passaic, Sussex, Union and Warren); and 27-lawyer DYFS South (Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem).
� The 14-lawyer employment litigation section, which won all 35 of the summary judgment motions and four of five trials since Jan. 1, Gilson says.
� The environmental law practice group and its three units: the 24-lawyer environmental enforcement section; the 27-lawyer environmental permitting and counseling section; and the 18-lawyer cost recovery and natural resource damages section.
� The administrative practice group’s 11-lawyer banking and insurance section; 19-lawyer consumer affairs counseling section; 10-lawyer education and higher education section; six-lawyer employment counsel; and eight-lawyer public utilities section.
Attorney General Stuart Rabner recently testified at budget hearings before Assembly and Senate committees on the need to raise state prosecutors’ pay to attract and retain talent.
Deputy Attorney General Michael Goldman, the banking and insurance section chief in the Division of Law, who left for private practice in the 1980s and returned in 1992, agrees with Gilson that whether or not the Legislature enacts pay relief, talented lawyers will continue to join the office. “We like our work,” he says. “It gives us the opportunity to do important work on behalf of the public. These things offset the lack of enormous compensation.”
Gilson is also supervising the phase-in of a new merit-based system for selecting outside counsel for state agencies.
Last month, Rabner announced the kick-off of what he called an “objective, merit-based, selection process” for hiring lawyers. Applicants will list credentials on a prescribed Request for Qualifications form and selection committees will review them based on set criteria, such as expertise, responsiveness, location, size of firm, past performance and absence of conflicts of interest.
“We want to make sure we get a cross section of law firms with the right kind of experience, backgrounds and geographic spreads. Anybody who wants to can come forward and apply,” Gilson says.
The first round of RFQs, which closes June 15, seeks lawyers for general litigation, employment litigation and litigation under Wright v. State of New Jersey, 169 N.J. 422 (2001), by which the state is responsible for legal representation and indemnification of employees of the county prosecutors’ offices in suits over actions taken in the course of enforcing the state’s criminal laws.
For the current round, the state will pay $200 an hour for partners, $150 for associates, $125 for clerks and law assistants and $90 for paralegals. Gilson expects that rates for more complex matters will be higher.
“We always have to balance the desire to get a fair and reasonable price with making sure that we don’t price ourselves so low we’re out of the market,” he says.
Although the new process subjects all prospective outside counsel to the same procedures, Gilson expects firms that have been awarded work in the past will continue to get it.
“The bottom line is to attract the best lawyers to do work at reasonable rates. But, in addition, we wanted to broaden it so that getting work isn’t just based on word-of-mouth or knowing somebody,” he says.
The three areas in the current RFQ round comprise 10 percent of the $30.2 million paid to outside counsel in 2006. Employment litigation cost $1.9 million, general litigation $538,600 and Wright matters $773,629.
Future RFQs will be created for 15 other practice-group areas where outside counsel are typically retained, such as complex litigation, municipal court, real estate, labor negotiations, alternative investments, collections, bond counsel, medical malpractice, intellectual property, out-of-state tort, Federal Employers’ Liability Act, fatal accidents, state vehicle cases, workers’ compensation and special railroad counsel.
Last year, fees came to $8.9 million for construction litigation; $4.9 million for nontort litigation; $3.8 million for bond work; $1.9 million for medical malpractice; and $1.7 million for work on alternative investments.
In the next month or so, Gilson expects to roll out a major initiative: an Affirmative Litigation Section that would make the state a more frequent plaintiff in cases on behalf of New Jersey residents.
“We’re looking for significant public matters where judicial intervention is likely to advance the cause,” says Gilson, who had been a partner at Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown before joining the Attorney General’s Office.
The section’s scope would be wide and would focus on complex matters, such as:
� Securities fraud and corporate misreporting.
� Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to health care institutions.
� Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
� Environmental issues, such as water protection and enforcement of caps on carbon emissions. Gilson’s office already works often with the Department of Environmental Protection on natural resource damage and transfer station matters.
� Labor and fair wage issues.
� Prescription-drug fraud.
Another type of case that could be handled by the section is the attorney general’s investigation, begun earlier this month, into allegations that the student loan industry made improper payments to colleges for promotion of certain loan companies to students.
Gilson anticipates four to five lawyers being assigned to the new section at the start, with the possibility of adding lawyers later.
His goal is to handle affirmative litigation matters internally but acknowledges that outside counsel would be brought in when appropriate.
“We have a lot of things to do and sometimes outside firms have the knowledge and the resources to better handle it,” he says. “Affirmative litigation takes a while to develop. They are major cases, and they’re vigorously litigated on both sides.”