Bar advocate pay raise a relief, but concerns remain

Issue September 2005 By Bill Archambeault

The long-running battle over bar advocate pay was resolved when Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey signed pay raise legislation into law at the end of July, but advocates want to make sure the issue doesn't reach the same crisis level again.

The state legislature approved a $30 million bill that approved significant salary increases for court-appointed attorneys, the hiring of 130 staff lawyers and the creation of a commission to study related issues.

The relatively low salaries earned by bar advocates had drawn the most attention and were part of the reason hundreds of lawyers refused to represent indigent criminal defendants.

The legislation raised bar advocate pay from $37.50 an hour to $50 an hour for district court cases, from $46.50 to $60 an hour for superior court cases and from $61.50 an hour to $100 an hour for murder cases.

While advocates said they would have preferred rates to have been set even higher, with increases possibly tied to the consumer price index, the legislature's pay raise was a fair one.

"They responded to a crisis in an appropriate way. It's a reaffirmation of the importance of a right to counsel," said Kathleen M. O'Donnell, who just finished her term as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

The dispute over bar advocate pay rates was one of the major issues during her tenure, and she testified, along with more than a dozen other legislators, lawyers, bar association heads and public defenders, about the urgent need to raise rates at a packed Statehouse hearing on June 14.

Those testifying derided the previous pay raise of $7.50 an hour as a drop in the bucket for bar advocates who frequently work additional jobs to supplement their income, struggle to manage heavy workloads due to understaffing and sometimes are forced to leave their preferred practice area to earn higher wages somewhere else.

O'Donnell praised the legislature for addressing what was not necessarily seen as the most urgent issue from a political standpoint -- raising salaries for lawyers who defend the poor.

Support for aiding indigent people who are charged with crimes is lacking, said O'Donnell. "I think what (the legislature) did was very fair. When there are so many interests competing for so few funds, it's always a balancing act with the legislature."

MBA General Counsel and Interim Executive Director Martin W. Healy said the pay raise addressed the basic issues raised by the MBA's Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation report in 1994.

"This has obviously been a long-fought battle for the bar association. It has been at the forefront of issues affecting the bar advocate community," he said. "That (report) helped frame the present debate over the rates of pay. Though the study may appear somewhat outdated, there hasn't been any significant change in the rates for the last decade.

"One always hopes to do better in terms of advancing an hourly rate, but this was a significant step forward," Healy said. "There'll always be lively debate over the appropriate level of compensation, but the recent legislative change greatly assuages the criminal defense bar and the passionate reaction by bar advocates will dissipate and people will return to work and sign contracts."

Still, there is concern that because the immediate crisis has been addressed, legislators will put issues of bar advocate pay and workloads out of their minds until it reaches the boiling point again.

"I met with some legislators on this issue and they said it's got to be a crisis for us to respond," O'Donnell said. "Because there are so many competing interests and so few dollars, that's the reality of the political situation. It may have to get to that point again."

But at least for the time being, Healy said that legislators have recognized the critical role that bar advocates play in the state's justice system.
"It's more than just about pay," Healy said. "It's about the respect and dignity they felt they were owed for this constitutional service, and the legislature recognized this."