The Legal Aid Society called on the New York City Council today to prioritize public defender pay parity with Corporation Counsel – the lawyers who represent the City – in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. Legal Aid testified on this issue earlier at a joint budget hearing held by the Council’s Committee on Justice and the Committee on Public Safety.
Last October, the City Council examined the pay disparity between public defenders and City lawyers. Representatives from defender organizations and their staff shared personal stories about how the lack of parity undercuts the ability to pursue careers serving the public; the ability to raise a family locally; and how it also sends the message to defenders that their work and mandate is less important than that of the job performed by their adversaries.
According to a Legal Aid analysis of Corporation Counsel’s pay scale, that office can pay their attorneys with ten years’ experience an estimated annual salary between $95,000 and $108,000, which is significantly higher than defenders’ ability to pay their staff with the same experience level.
Moreover, Legal Aid reviewed retention rates of its Criminal Defense Practice attorneys who were hired between 2007 and 2017, and 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 tenth year of service. By the tenth year, essentially half of that year’s hiring class – nearly 48 percent – had departed for other employers. Brief reviews of Legal Aid’s Civil and Juvenile Practices revealed a similar trend, with lawyers exiting to jobs in City and State government.
“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 Janet Sabel, CEO and Attorney-In-Chief of The Legal Aid Society. “This inequality in pay deprives our staff of a sustainable living wage, impeding their ability to pursue careers as defenders. It’s time to correct this and to ensure that staff on the front line receive fair compensation to continue to represent New York’s historically marginalized communities.”
Pay parity is not just an issue for defenders in New York City but a national issue facing offices around the country in Oregon, California, Georgia, and other states.
To follow this campaign on social media, search by the #PayParityNow and #NoJusticeWithoutUs hashtags.