NYLJ: Defenders Urge More Funding in NYC Budget for Pay Parity With City's Lawyers

The New York City Council’s budget response to Mayor Bill de Blasio included $15 million to support parity in pay between local defender and legal services offices with the city’s Corporation Counsel, but the former group of attorneys says there should be more.

The Legal Aid Society said in a statement Wednesday that if City Council and de Blasio really wanted to guarantee parity between attorneys who represent indigent defendants and individuals and the city’s attorneys, they should set aside $30 million in the city budget.

“To truly bridge this longstanding pay parity divide, the city must allocate at least $30 million to meaningfully address the full scope of this problem and its many consequences,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “Pay parity is a fundamental issue of fairness; and we hope that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council will join us to finally put this principle into effect.”

The organization, which provides legal services to low-income defendants, individuals involved in civil litigation and children, tipped its hat to the council’s response to de Blasio’s preliminary budget proposal, which did not offer any additional funding to promote parity between public defenders and Corporation Counsel.

“With this Fiscal Year 2020 budget recommendation, the City Council recognizes our irreplaceable and necessary work defending New Yorkers on a wide range of legal matters,” the Legal Aid Society said. “The council also recognizes that this inequality in pay deprives our staff of a sustainable living wage and undercuts our ability to effectively represent clients on a daily basis.”

The budget response, released Tuesday by Speaker Corey Johnson, D-Manhattan, and the council offered a $15 million boost to increase parity, the lack of which leads to high turnover and loss of expertise in that area of law, the proposal said. “Contracting out a government service should not be done to save money by paying unfair wages. The low salaries paid to public sector lawyers contribute to high turnover rates and a loss of expertise,” the council’s budget response said. “Increasing the salaries of these attorneys would address issues of high attrition and allow attorneys to live and participate in the communities where they work.”

Those attorneys already receive funding from the city, but at levels they argue are not fair for the amount of work they’re doing. According to an analysis by Legal Aid Society, the city’s attorneys can be paid between $95,000 and $108,000 when they have a decade of experience. That is “significantly higher” than what they could pay their lawyers with the same level of expertise, they said.

The city’s district attorneys have also voiced concerns over pay parity. They claim their assistant district attorneys are not paid at the same level as their counterparts in the city’s Corporation Counsel, which has led to the same turnover issues that local defender offices face.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, for example, testified before the council in October that her assistant district attorneys were regularly leaving her office to pursue positions with higher pay. That’s left her with a staff of attorneys with relatively little experience compared to the city’s lawyers.

A spokesman for the city’s Corporation Counsel said in a statement that granting fair compensation to all attorneys involved in publicly represented litigation across the board would allow those offices to enlist skilled lawyers.

“Our system of justice works best when all parties in litigation are represented by competent counsel,” said Nick Paolucci, spokesman for the City Law Department. “Fair compensation for those who represent indigent persons is a critical factor in recruiting and retaining effective lawyers.”

A spokesman for de Blasio said they’ll be reviewing the council’s proposed allocation as well as the funding request from Legal Aid as they continue to negotiate the final city budget, which is due in June.

“Defenders are critical partners in the city’s work to preserve and extend fairness,” said Raul Contreras, a de Blasio spokesman. “We look forward to working with the council on their budget requests and weighing them against our mandatory savings target and the economic uncertainty the city faces.”