When Tippecanoe County District Attorney Patrick Harrington used to visit law schools, he had more than 10 graduate students who wanted to be interviewed for jobs in his office. Now he may have two or maybe four interested students, and sometimes they confess that they only talk to him to practice their interview skills.
Harrington doesn’t blame students and new lawyers who don’t want to work in an DA’s office. However, he said he was frustrated by what he sees as an escalation in the inability to recruit and retain lawyers.
“We need talented lawyers to do this job,” Harrington said. “It’s the hardest job you can do. “
A glance at the help announcements on the websites of the Indiana Attorneys Board and the Indiana Public Defenders Commission shows many vacancies in county offices large and small, as well as in state agencies. Most are entry-level jobs that require no prior experience beyond a JD degree with a license to practice in the state and being in good standing with the Indiana Supreme Court.
The increased difficulty for prosecutors and public defenders finding attorneys is believed to reflect a shortage of attorneys in Indiana. About a decade after the Great Recession – when law schools were criticized for over-saturating the job market – the situation, at least for Indiana’s public sector, appears to have turned around.
During testimony before the Interim Review Committee on Corrections and the Criminal Code in August, the Public Defender’s Commission highlighted the shortage.
“We are severely understaffed in terms of attorneys for the state,” Andrew Cullen, director of public policy and communications for the commission, told the committee. “There was a time when we always thought we had too many lawyers. We are no longer there. “
The commission looked at professional data from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and found that the state had “a much lower standard of lawyers than the country,” according to Torrin Liddell, analyst for research and commission statistics. On average, data shows that Indiana has only 36% of the recommended number of avocados per capita compared to the national average.
Harrington said he viewed the shortage as increasing the possibility of mistakes.
Speaking to a group of students at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, he was asked about wrongful convictions. Harrington responded that when district attorneys’ offices are fully staffed with highly trained lawyers doing their jobs properly, cases that lead to the incarceration of innocent people go unranked. With enough lawyers, offices are able to investigate, review evidence and filter questionable cases, he said.
Causes and consequences
Of Indiana’s 92 counties, only four meet the 100% threshold, indicating that they have enough attorneys to meet the legal needs of their residents, according to the Public Defender Commission. Liddell warned that the data can be wrong for counties with smaller populations that display more than enough avocados, such as Brown and Martin, which register at 117% and 187%, respectively.
In addition, he noted, the needs of each county are different. Some may be well served by less than 100% of the national average, while others may require more.
“But I can say with pretty good certainty that 36% is not enough,” Liddell said.
While the shortage cannot be linked to a single cause, Liddell and Harrington both pointed to two likely sources: declining law school enrollment and low pay.
The total number of students enrolled has declined by more than 150 over the past decade at IU Maurer as well as at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, according to the American Bar Association. Additionally, while Notre Dame Law School enrollment has remained in the 500-600 student range, entry classes over the past two years have each had around 50 students less than the 2019 freshman class. .
The closure of the Valparaiso Law School in 2020 adds to the decline.
Salaries for public sector lawyers have traditionally been lower than their counterparts in law firms, but prosecutors and public defenders argue that new lawyers find it even more difficult to raise their salaries, especially if they are in debt. student loan and are married with children. Additionally, while government lawyers typically get a nominal raise each year, lawyers in private practice can get significant salary increases as well as bonuses.
Compensation surveys from the National Association for Law Placement highlight the disparity. The national median salary for entry-level public prosecutors and public defenders was $ 56,200 and $ 58,300, respectively, in 2018. In comparison, private sector lawyers in 2017 earned $ 58,000 in smaller firms and $ 180,000 in the largest firms.
Some suggest that the public sector could attract more law school graduates by offering a stronger, less bureaucratic student loan cancellation initiative than the current federal program. Additionally, they believe law schools could help generate interest by cultivating internships in county prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices so that students can understand what the job entails.
For Cullen, the consequences of doing nothing to address the shortage could potentially lead to a less secure society. The criminal justice system relies on dedicated and well-trained public defenders who are not overworked, he said. If offices are not fully staffed, prisons could become overcrowded and justice will not be swift and efficient.
IU McKinney has seen an increase in the number of graduate students entering the public sector. The amount went from 55 for the 2017 class to 68 for the 2020 class.
Whittley Pike, senior associate director of professional development at the law school, attributes interest in government work to state agencies that are close to the school and have entry-level positions open. In addition, alumni who work in the public sector often interact with students.
As students prepare to graduate and enter the workforce, Pike will discuss with them public sector versus private sector wages and the comparison between wage and workload and job expectations. . Another aspect they talk about is work experience related to employment in the prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices.
Students will reconsider their plans during their studies for what they want to do with their JD degrees, which Pike says is a natural part of their learning experience. The number of IU McKinney graduates who are pursuing careers in the public sector is uncertain, but Pike has seen plenty of students who, rather than thinking long term, are trying to gauge what to expect.
“I have certainly seen people who are just very excited about the public service that they are going to do and they really believe in the change that they think they can make in their community,” she said. “I also have students who say, ‘I’m so happy to have a solid offer right now and I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to do in the next two years. This brings me closer to my long-term goal of private practice.
Retention is also an issue.
Allen County District Attorney Karen Richards said her office is “woefully understaffed” but what she really needs are lawyers with experience building and presenting cases. Workloads are on the rise as crime rises and the amount of evidence to sift through has increased, from police reports and photographs to social media posts, cell phone data and videos body cameras.
“It’s hard work,” said Richards. “It’s not for everyone, and finding those few people it’s a good choice for isn’t easy.”
The Allen County office is focused on growing its own crop of experienced avocados. Currently, the office has a group of 30-year-old lawyers who have worked there and, said Richards, “are doing really, really well.” The opportunity to judge cases is a key incentive, but the office also tries to build loyalty by covering continuing legal education, sponsoring young lawyers and offering social activities.
Yet, on recruiting new attorneys who can become seasoned assistant prosecutors, Richards said she noticed a change in attitude that could make retention even more difficult.
“I think they’re interested in the money. I think they’re interested in how much time they have to work, ”Richards said. “… I think young people are much less willing to put their private life aside for their professional life. It might be good, it might be bad, but it doesn’t always match the way it works here. “•