A Plea for Fair Compensation

When I left law school, I considered taking a job as a public defender. I had spent roughly 18 months interning at the Wake County Public Defender’s office, first in the misdemeanor section, and then for about a year working for a felony assistant public defender on a variety of cases.

It was a fantastic office with many great attorneys. I learned a ton. Some of the lessons, including importantly from the intern coordinator about how she worked with clients, are things I try to incorporate into my representation of clients today.

I sat second chair and located the alibi that secured a not-guilty in a robbery with a deadly weapon case after 5 minutes of deliberation in one case. I was deeply involved in a second degree murder case, in which the client was eventually offered a very favorable plea in part because of my help on the case. And I represented another client charged with multiple sex offenses in which, again, owing in part to my work, we were able to secure a very favorable outcome.

It was great work; the chance to work on a variety of cases, and to eventually second chair another kidnapping and robbery case that went on for 8 days and resulted in a complete not guilty for the client, was great.

The problem, ultimately, was that while I had worked pro bono for 18 months, I eventually needed to be paid and the salary, around $40,000, was pathetic given all the schooling I had undergone, given the loans I now had, and given that I had left a career in which I made twice that.

That problem has not changed. North Carolina continues to pay its assistant public defenders, its assistant district attorneys, and its assistant clerks, a pittance. Some of my colleagues at the Wake County Public Defender’s Office had to take second jobs in order to make ends meet.

The problem is not unique to North Carolina, which doesn’t make it any less catastrophic.

If the legislature wants to continue to be tough on crime, and make it grossly inefficient to resolve cases in our criminal court system by stripping power from judges over the Division of Motor Vehicles, make it expensive on the accused, and make it time consuming to get anything done, then the least it could do is pay people properly.

And while we’re at it, Indigent Defense Services must know that its private court appointed contract system is borderline unconstitutional, and is an insult to the next generation of criminal defense lawyers.

UPDATE: I seem to have overstated the salary a bit: Two ADA positions are currently open in North Carolina: Durham County is advertising a starting salary for a “time-limited, grant funded, full-time” position of $37,628. While the salary range says $37,628 to $133,082, don’t be fooled. The typical ADA would be earning far closer to $37,628, if not the bottom of the range exactly, than she would earn $130,000.

The second listing is for an ADA in Alamance County with a $37,628 starting salary, up to $65,000. For a starting or junior level ADA, again the salary would be closer to $37,628.

The problem is not that $37,628 is a terrible starting salary in the abstract, assuming that once someone proves his worth he can get up to $70,000 in a few years. I started at $25,000 nearly 20 years ago in my original profession. However, after I had proven that I was reasonably competent, within three years I was earning twice that.

The problem is that $37,628 is a terrible salary in the context of non-existent or infrequent salary increases or adjustments, and in light of the fact that in order secure a $37,628 annual salary, a person had to spend 7 years of post-high school education, only to end up – except if funded by wealthy family – with six figures in non-dischargeable educational debt.

And loan forgiveness programs are not the answer. Keeping people locked into poorly paid jobs does not solve the problem that these are poorly paid jobs. We ask assistant public defenders to shoulder enormous responsibility to advise clients and defend them against criminal charges that can be life-altering. We ask assistant district attorneys to prosecute serious crimes and to keep the public safe.

And yet when it comes time to pay the bill, the General Assembly has fallen short of the mark.

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.