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Low pay leads to high job turnover

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When Chad Lewis went looking for a deputy prosecutor, he hired a “very sharp, competent person” who had no prosecutorial experience and had not yet passed the bar exam.

Lewis, prosecutor in Jefferson County, has three deputy prosecutors in his office, two are paid by the state and the other is paid by the county. The vacancy opened when the county-paid deputy left after five years to take a position in a private law firm that paid roughly $15,000 more.

“I don’t blame him for leaving,” Lewis said.
 

lewis-chad-wide-15col.jpg Chad Lewis, prosecutor in Jefferson County, had his request for another deputy prosecutor denied. (Photo courtesy of The Madison Courier)

Two-thirds of the résumés submitted for the position were from law students, and while he would have rather hired someone with five to six years of experience, the low salary coupled with having to live in a small community proved too unattractive.

Now, he may be wondering how long his new hire will stay.

“I would say salary has been an obstacle to retention here in the past,” Lewis said.

The situation in Jefferson County highlights the squeeze on today’s public sector attorneys. Paychecks, historically low compared to others in the legal profession, may be too small to support a family, and student loan debt is often too high to repay on a public salary.

A survey of public interest and public sector attorneys by NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals, found that salaries had grown little between 2004 and 2012. According to the “2012 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report,” the current median entry-level salary for public defenders is $50,500 and for prosecuting attorneys is $50,000. This is about 25 percent higher than the 2004 median entry-level salaries of $39,000 and $40,000, respectively.

Based on the findings, NALP concluded that at a time when salaries in the public sector have just kept pace with inflation, the cost of legal education and average law student loan debt are increasing at a much higher rate. The report questioned whether law students have economic incentive to enter the public sector.

However, interest in these careers remains high, prosecutors and public defenders in Indiana say. Many attorneys applying for these positions have a strong desire and dedication to be a public servant, but they often struggle to make the job a long-term career because of the salary.

The consequence is that after a few years, the attorneys are leaving the offices and counties are deprived of those lawyers’ experience and training.

Paycheck to paycheck

Victoria Bailey began working for the Marion County Public Defenders Agency in August 2008 and is an appellant public defender. It is a job she loves, a job she believes in, and a job, she admits, she did not take for the paycheck.

“I care very deeply about the Constitution and assuring people’s rights are protected,” Bailey said. “Being able to do something I am passionate about is more important than money.”

Still, the small compensation would not enable her to pay her student loans and raise a family. She does not blame her boss, Robert Hill, chief public defender, but rather believes her pay may reflect the public’s perception of her job. Bailey believes some people may not think a public defender is important because some of the clients can be unsavory individuals.

Bailey admits she lives a simple lifestyle, riding the bus instead of owning a car and spending many evenings at home instead of going out, but, still, the low pay makes her feel undervalued and underappreciated. She wants a raise.

“It’s fair. It’s the right thing to do. I earned it,” she said. “Just because I can do without doesn’t mean I should do without.”

The NALP survey charted the narrative of low pay in every location. For the past four years, many public sector attorneys have been living paycheck to paycheck and unable to save money, said Steve Grumm, director of public service initiatives at NALP. This, in turn, calls into question the viability of the public sector as a career path.

Hill is frustrated by the low salaries his attorneys receive. Currently, the starting salary is $45,000, and that does not compensate his lawyers adequately considering their level of education.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office shares Hill’s concerns. Salaries start at $45,619 and increase as a deputy prosecutor gets promoted from misdemeanors to D felonies to major felonies.

Both Hill and Laurel Judkins, chief counsel for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, said the attorneys who work in their offices are dedicated, quality attorneys who want to work in the public sector. However, their ability to serve is hindered when they get married and have children. They tend to move on, many going into private practice, because the public sector paychecks cannot cover all the things raising a family require.

“It’s not that you want the pay to be exorbitant,” Hill said, “but you do want it to be adequate pay so a young man coming out of law school can say, ‘I can have a family, pay for my kids going to college,’ or she can say, ‘I can get married, buy a house.’”

Access to justice

Paychecks have been crunched particularly in recent years as municipalities try to tighten budgets to match declining revenues. What has not gotten smaller is the workload.

During Jefferson County’s recent budget hearings, Lewis asked the county to pay for another deputy prosecutor. He underscored his request by breaking down the numbers. Considering criminal cases alone and not counting in the traffic infractions and child support proceedings, his deputy prosecutors each handle an average of 375 cases annually, translating into an average of 5.5 hours spent on each case. When child support and infractions are included, the average time spend on each case dropped to 1.46 hours.

The limited time gets upended if a murder case goes to trial. Preparation, investigation and courtroom work can eat 100 hours which means other cases are getting zero time and, in Lewis’ words, “victims are not getting justice.”

In the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, the situation is much the same. About 65,000 charges are filed annually ranging from traffic violations to major felonies. No one, said Judkins, is sitting around the office with nothing to do.

Attorneys in both the prosecutor’s and the public defender offices regularly take work home and come in on the weekends to keep pace with the case load.

Salaries play a part in the workload dilemma. As the small paychecks push experienced prosecutors and public defense attorneys out, Grumm said the offices lose their institutional knowledge and work is done with less efficiency and effectiveness.

The whole criminal justice system suffers because the concern of paying a living wage to public sector attorneys is ultimately about providing access to justice, he said.

Hill has seen how turnover impacts his office. With less experienced attorneys, the office does not run as smoothly which can mean cases do not go to trial as soon and clients wait longer in jail.

The situation may not be improving any time soon. Jefferson County did not fund the additional deputy prosecutor and the request by the Marion County Prosectuor’s Office for a 3 percent cost of living raise in 2013 was not included in the city-county budget.

While their salaries have stagnated, the cost of living has increased to the point that, Judkins pointed out, deputy prosecutors are actually seeing smaller paychecks than in 2009.

“I think that when you don’t receive any sort of raise for over four years and the end result is you’re making less than what you were making four years ago, that’s very hard to swallow,” Judkins said.•

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  • Unrealistic
    If those new attorneys entering public sector jobs with an entry level salary of $50,000 and tons of benefits think they can do better in the private sector, they're fooling themselves. The market is so saturated, many law firms don't even pay salaries, or hourly...they're commission only. The prosecutor, the public defender who can walk out the door and make $15,000 at a law firm is the exception, not the rule. $50,000 is actually an excellent starting salary for an attorney, especially considering the benefits you get in the public sector.

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