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Wisconsin Court-Appointed Lawyers Seeking Higher Pay

At a time when lawyers are taking pay cuts of $100,000, it's almost unseemly for some lawyers to be asking for a raise. That is, unless those lawyers handle court-appointed criminal work for $40 an hour and are seeking to place their salaries on par with those of lawyers who handle court appointed work in other states.

According to the Wisconsin Law Journal, court-appointed criminal lawyers have gone to the Wisconsin state legislature seeking a pay increase of $30 an hour, to bring the rate to $70 an hour. The current $40 an hour rate actually represents a decrease in real dollars from 30 years ago; back in 1978, the legislature set the rate at $45 per hour. (Federal court rates were recently upped from $100 to $110 per hour for non-capital cases.)

Legislators are split on whether a pay raise is warranted. For example, Rep. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee, wondered why legislators should put the the court-appointed lawyers' request above other funding priorities, such as tax relief for low income families. However, Deborah Smith, who heads the Wisconsin court-appointed program argues that as a result of low rates, unqualified attorneys are taking appointments:

[Smith] said that in the last six months she has had to remove attorneys from assignments because of “uncontrolled substance abuse” and at least one other attorney was removed this year by a judge because he became “mentally unstable.”

“I’ve had to deal this year with intoxicated and drug-impaired lawyers,” Smith said. “I know there are lawyers on our list who are not providing appropriate representation. To what extent the $40 per hour contributes to that is a matter of debate, but I think it does.”

Meanwhile, other representatives find that a $40 rate isn't bad if a lawyer works 40 hours per week. Said Representative Bill Kramer:

[A]n attorney who takes a case at $40 per hour and works 40 hours per week would earn around $80,000 a year...That …would be damn near the average [attorney’s salary],” Kramer said. “If we bust it up to $70, now we’re talking about $140,000 a year."

No doubt, court-appointed lawyers are grossly underpaid. But at the same time, that's the same rate that many contract lawyers earn. True, representing criminal defendants is far more difficult than reviewing documents, but those rates put downward pressure on today's markets.

The other issue, in my opinion, is that most court-appointed lawyers become too dependent on the public dole. Amber Lucsay, a solo who is mentioned in the article, says that she generates 90 percent of her business through court-appointed work. In my view, that lack of diversification is bad for business. While I'm not suggesting that court-appointed lawyers should merely "dabble" in defense work, but when a lawyer devotes 90 percent of her practice to a single area of law, particularly one that isn't terribly lucrative, that's the risk she takes.

What do you think?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 4, 2009 at 04:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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