O’Donnell and others urge judiciary committee to increase pay for public counsel, forgive loan debt

Issue July 2005 By Bill Archambeault

Massachusetts Bar Association President Kathleen M. O’Donnell joined a chorus of lawyers, academics and legislators at a packed Statehouse hearing on June 14 in urging legislators to raise wages and forgive loans for attorneys serving the public.

O’Donnell spoke specifically in favor of House Bill 992, which proposes raising the salaries for private counsel attorneys representing the indigent, to a minimum of $60 an hour. Attorneys working for the Private Counsel Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services earned as little as $30 an hour — $54 an hour for murder cases — before a $7.50 increase was enacted last year after the situation was publicized in the media.

She also stated the MBA’s strong support for House Bill 1772, a loan forgiveness program for public service attorneys struggling financially.

The Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which is considering those and several other bills affecting attorney pay and loan debt, held hearings that drew a crowd of more than 200 people packed wall-to-wall inside the meeting room.

The crowd included some supporters who displayed homemade posters, while others carried American flags. Many wore yellow stickers supporting legislation aimed at reducing the financial burden of attorneys serving the public.

Meager annual salaries in the $35,000 range make it nearly impossible for many young lawyers to keep up with their educational loans, let alone think about buying a house or raising a family, committee members were told. Low salaries only serve to push young attorneys — even the most devoted — away from public service, advocates said, with several citing alarming turnover rates.

“The inadequacy of bar advocates’ pay makes it extraordinarily difficult to retain lawyers of skill, experience and talent,” O’Donnell testified. “Many outstanding attorneys are forced to leave public service because they are unable to meet their financial obligations due to low compensation rates.”

O’Donnell noted that the MBA pointed out the problems caused by such low compensation — the third lowest in the nation, she said — back in 1994. The MBA’s Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation issued a study that year calling criminal justice attorneys’ pay “inadequate and inequitable.”

The report, now more than a decade old, had recommended increasing hourly pay for district court matters to $50, superior court matters to $65, and murder cases and murder appeals to $85.

“Those were our recommendations 10 years ago, and as you know, the current rates of pay don’t come close to those recommendations,” O’Donnell said. “In fact, bar advocate rates in Massachusetts are the third lowest in the country. This is deplorable for a justice system which is considered a national model.”

Many who testified cited the potential for a crisis in the state’s judicial system if wages aren’t raised significantly and immediately. The revolving door of inexperienced attorneys slows down the justice system, they said, and the loss of experienced lawyers also threatens the rights of those who rely on free legal help.

“We can’t lose sight that the Massachusetts and United States Constitutions mandate that indigent citizens facing criminal charges must be competently represented,” O’Donnell testified. “When the commonwealth fails to provide compensation to retain experienced defense counsel, citizens charged with crimes are denied the fundamental rights of a fair and speedy trial with effective assistance of counsel.”

She also urged the committee to support House Bill 1772, the loan forgiveness bill sponsored by Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, the House chairman of the joint judiciary committee. Lawyers who meet the financial criteria would be able to reduce their educational loan debt by working a minimum of two continuous years in public service. The MBA voted to support the bill at the House of Delegates meeting in May.
Geline Williams, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said the average loan debt of her members is $73,000.

“Our salaries for prosecutors are shameful across the board,” she told the joint committee, leading to double-digit turnover rates. “It is unsustainable.”
Robert Sable, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services, told the committee that as soon as young public service attorneys are trained by the state, they are often forced to leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere, essentially wasting the state’s investment.

“It’s just bad policy to spend two-to-three years training someone and then have them leave,” he said.

Andrew Silverman, deputy counsel, public defenders, CPCS, said he has one staff attorney who works weekends waitressing and bartending — and earns more doing that than as an attorney.

Rep. James Fagan, D-Taunton, testified that with all of the legal reform efforts underway, the only group not being protected seems to be attorneys.

“They are so vastly and unproportionally underpaid, it is embarrassing,” he said. “We are going to reach a crisis.”

Setting a minimum hourly salary of $60 would hardly be generous, said Rep. Brian Knuuttila, D-Gardner and House Bill 992’s chief sponsor, given the type of work and caseloads public service attorneys handle.

“This is compassion, dedication and commitment that these men and women bring to the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s worth, but it’s sure as hell not worth $37.50.”

Knuuttila said there has been a disturbing lack of public concern about attorney salaries since the issue erupted a year ago, when some attorneys refused to take on additional cases. The $7.50-an-hour increase in response seemed to quiet the outrage, he said. But pressure on underpaid attorneys is still building and needs to be addressed quickly, he said.

“You haven’t heard about these crises because they’ve had their fingers in the dike,” Knuuttila told the committee. “But the levee’s about to overflow.”