Brooklyn Boro

Lawyers representing the poorest New Yorkers demand better pay

"We fight for the constitutional rights of all of the people of New York City — and then we cannot afford to live here."

May 30, 2019 David Brand and Noah Goldberg
Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, speaks at a rally for pay parity for public defenders. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

About 40 New York City public defenders and legal staff members joined Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at City Hall Thursday to demand equal pay with other lawyers who work for the city.

“The only thing that [public defenders] are asking for is that they can live on the salary that they are getting,” Williams said. “They’re not asking for the high-powered attorney salaries. They’re not asking for outrageous amounts of money. They’re asking to be able to live in the city they love and feed their families. They are asking simply for parity.”

Attorneys from organizations like the Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defenders earn less than their counterparts in District Attorney’s Offices and the city’s Law Department.

Stan Germán, executive director with New York County Defender Services, said the lower salaries hinder recruitment and retention among attorneys representing the city’s poorest defendants.

“We must be able to continue to recruit the best and the brightest law student graduates who are willing to dedicate their legal career to public service,” Germán said.

Public defenders in Oakland earn a starting salary of $98,000. In Washington, D.C., they start off making $73,000, he said. “By contrast, in New York City, which has a higher cost of living than both Oakland and Washington, D.C., a first year attorney at the Legal Aid Society is making $62,000.” 

A review of New York City public defender salaries on the website Glassdoor.com showed salaries that are relatively low for attorneys, the Queens Eagle reported last year. Brooklyn Defender Services paid staff attorneys an average annual salary of $65,619, based on four listed salaries. Legal Aid paid staff attorneys an annual salary of $67,075, based on 52 listed salaries, and the New York Legal Assistance Group paid staff attorneys an annual salary of $61,000 based on 17 listed salaries at the time.

A 2018 AccessLex/Gallup survey found that 60 percent of law school graduates borrowed more than $100,000 in loans for law school between 2010 and 2017, Quartz reported .

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Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society, said the attorneys frequently resign from the office because of the low salaries.

“Just in the last three weeks, I had to accept the resignation of seven staff people who moved on to other organizations, and, by the way, other city agencies like Corporation Counsel,” Luongo said, referring to the city’s lawyers. She added that Mayor Bill de Blasio did not respond to their pay parity demands.

The public defenders asked de Blasio and the City Council to allocate up to $50 million in the next budget to increase public defender salaries.

Last month, public defenders called on the City Council to include $15 million in funding to increase pay for public defenders. The council agreed to allocate that money in the budget. In 2018, the city provided $15 million to district attorney’s offices to increase prosecutor pay.

“I have friends who work second jobs, and I have friends who live with several roommates just to make ends meet,” said Maryanne Kaishian, a staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services. “We fight for the constitutional rights of all of the people of New York City — and then we cannot afford to live here.”

NYC Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci told the Queens Eagle that “fair compensation” for public defenders “is a critical factor in recruiting and retaining effective lawyers.”

“Our system of justice works best when all parties in litigation are represented by competent counsel,” Paolucci told the Queens Eagle in March.

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