By David Brand
The Legal Aid Society is asking the city to allocate $12 million to $15 million to public advocate organizations in the 2020 budget in order to establish pay parity with attorneys from the city’s Corporation Counsel.
Salaries for public defenders, as well as prosecutors, trail other government attorneys. It’s an issue that the City Council’s Committee on the Justice System reviewed at an October 2018 hearing, where public defenders and prosecutors sat at the same table to discuss the need for higher pay.
“Every day, our dedicated staff works tirelessly in courts and in communities to defend New York’s most vulnerable,” Legal Aid said in a statement ahead of the October hearing. “However, for too long, City Hall and the NYS Office of Court Administration (OCA) have underappreciated and undervalued this zealous commitment by refusing to acknowledge the growing disparity in compensation between our staff, Corporation Counsel, and OCA court attorneys.”
Legal Aid said Tuesday that it reviewed employment data from its own criminal defense practice and found that, among attorneys hired between 2007 and 2017, the rate of retention decreases as attorneys gain more experience. A large percentage of attorneys leave the office between their fifth and tenth years, Legal Aid reported. Nearly half of attorneys hired in 2007 had left the office by their tenth year, Legal Aid said.
“Each and every day, our staff works relentlessly in courts and in communities on behalf of New York’s most vulnerable. But for far too long, they have been working at a financial disadvantage compared to the City lawyers who appear opposite them,” said Legal Aid CEO Janet Sabel in a statement Tuesday. “This inequality in pay deprives our staff of a sustainable living wage, impeding their ability to pursue careers as defenders.”
Councilmember Rory Lancman, a candidate for Queens DA, chairs the Committee on the Justice System and presented specific budget information for prosecutors and public defenders in his written testimony.
The FY 2020 Preliminary Budget for Indigent Defense includes $299.2 million, an $8.1 million increase from the 2019 budget. The city would cover $260 million of that total, while the state would pick up the remaining $39 million.
“Pay parity for public defenders with lawyers at other city agencies is of paramount importance to this committee, as highlighted by our October 2018 hearing on the subject, and we look forward to their testimony on this issue,” Lancman said in written testimony. “It is long past time for the city to pay the lawyers we fund to represent New Yorkers every day — especially those providing constitutionally or statutorily required work — at the same rate as the lawyers we hire for ourselves.”
The FY2020 proposed budget figures for prosecutors is similar to last year’s adopted budget. New York City DAs would receive $415.6 million in funding for 3,778 positions.
A review of New York City public defender salaries posted on the website Glassdoor.com demonstrates the relatively low pay. The average base pay for a Legal Aid staff attorney is $68,223 per year, based on a review of 52 salaries.
Brooklyn Defender Services pays staff attorneys an average base salary of $65,619 based on four listed salaries. The Bronx Defenders pay an average base salary of $67,000 per year based on seven listed salaries.
An AccessLex/Gallup survey from January 2018 found that 60 percent of law school graduates borrowed more than $100,000 in loans for law school between 2010 and 2017. The survey was reported by Quartz.
Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Practice, highlighted specific salary disparities between Corporation Counsel attorneys and public defenders during the October hearing.
New York City Corporation Counsel attorneys with 10 years of experience earn an annual salary of roughly $108,000 while public defenders with 10 years of experience earn about $90,000, she said.
NYC Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci said “fair compensation” for public defenders “is a critical factor in recruiting and retaining effective lawyers.”
“Our system of justice works best when all parties in litigation are represented by competent counsel,” Paolucci said.
Pay disparities also affect prosecutors, who earn less than than their corporation counsel counterparts as well.
“To ensure justice and fairness without fear or favor, prosecutors and indigent defense agencies must be able to recruit and retain the brightest legal minds,” said Manhattan District Attorney Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman-Agnifilo in written testimony presented to the committee in October. “A low starting salary combined with the twin burdens of tremendous law school debt and the cost of living in New York City make it extremely challenging for our offices to recruit recent law school graduates in the competitive legal labor market In a statement, the Legal Aid Society said public defender salaries pale in comparison to other attorneys and discourage many attorneys from pursuing or maintaining their careers in public service.
Correction: This article originally referred to John Ryan as Acting District Attorney. John Ryan is the Chief Assistant District Attorney in the Queens District Attorney’s Office. Richard Brown continues to serve as Queens DA until he officially resigns on June 1.