Trial Lawyers of the World, Unite!

Today in the UK, criminal barristers stopped work for the morning. (Don’t call it a strike.) The non-strike was prompted by the government, falsely representing the criminal bar as well-paid fat cats (the Minister of Justice says “average £100,000…I mean, £84,000”; the truth is closer to £37,000, and criminal barristers’ fees are already down 40% from the late 90s), proposing to cut £220 million from the indigent defense budget. Last October the Ministry of Justice had, as part of the same cost-saving package, proposed bribing criminal barristers for guilty pleas.

Lawyers defending indigents accused are an easy target for budget cuts. The narrative that keeps all politicians in power is one of fear. For example, “be afraid; this is a dangerous world; I can keep you safe.” Cutting police and prosecutorial budgets does not reinforce this narrative, so money coming out of the criminal justice system comes out of defenders’ budgets.

As in Britain, criminal-defense lawyers in America are not fat cats. There are a few getting rich and some making a damn good living, but the great majority are plodding along. According to the State Bar, Texas criminal-defense lawyers’ median income is $73,276—a good middle-class living, sure, but half are making less than that, and those at the median are making much less than the median income for Americans with professional degrees.

A few years ago Harris County lawyers taking appointments took a pay cut from the county. (Here are the ludicrously low rates for court-appointed counsel in Harris County. You can bet that outside lawyers doing civil work for the county aren’t working for $85 an hour.) Last year private lawyers taking appointments in federal court took a 12% pay cut to save Federal Public Defenders’ Offices from layoffs. Of the two options—PD layoffs, or a CJA pay cut—the latter was better, but the choice should never have been necessary. Both of those cuts went down with nary a protest.

The endgame of pay cuts for criminal lawyers is the end of the independent criminal-defense bar. As Lucy Reed writes in It’s not about the lawyers – its about YOU!: ((Note to Self: 2014 BPOTY nomination.))

There are already firms and chambers which have closed and cases where defendants have been unable to find a lawyer to represent them. At the moment they are few and far between. But that barristers (and solicitors) have been on “strike” today in such numbers, exposing themselves to potential complaints, disciplinary action and contempt of court is a pretty clear indicator that things are getting desperate. The bar are not really into histrionics and nor are they known for their radicalism. They believe in process, in responding to consultations with reasoned, evidence based argument. They believe that process has broken down.

You don’t need to like barristers or solicitors much. And they don’t need to be paid a gazillion pounds to do a good job. But you do need to understand that this IS about you. And about your legitimate expectation of a defence lawyer who will do a good job when you need them.

11 responses to “Trial Lawyers of the World, Unite!”

  1. I don’t know if this was for a general audience. If so though, you may want to elaborate on what that $85 actually means, because I can’t immediately reconcile it with claims that Harris County appointed lawyers are paid less than the average professional (including accounting for Houston’s higher cost of living). If that’s an unburdened rate, it’s very nice. If burdened, a quick estimate (50%) suggests it’s still well above average professional hourly pay.

    • It’s burdened. By my math 50% puts it just above median professional hourly pay.
      And some court-appointed lawyers make very good livings—as much as $319k (working 300 days in 2012—go figure). But that includes capital cases, and most are not making a full-time job of indigent defense, not taking capital cases, and not getting paid for all of their time.
      Here is a list of county court-appointed lawyers’ takes in 2012.

  2. I was working off 60k average professional salary plus the GSA’s 28.7% Houston adjustment. That ends up almost exactly 20% more.

    The detailed list you posted is a much rougher story. I assume that most of the people on that list take other work as well, but the pay/time still seems low, especially for anyone with significant experience.

  3. What a bunch of whiners. You guys just don’t have the right political connections:

    If you want more money take Polland’s advice and funnel a kickback or two in the form of a campaign contribution towards the republican judge of your choice. You’ll make it back in no time…

  4. Different groups, I think. I found professionals, you found professional degree holders. Mine likely includes a broader pool, but may not be as good a comparison.

  5. People are complaining about $85/hour in Harris County? In Maryland, the highest per-capita income state in the country with some outrageous housing prices and fairly hefty local property and income taxes, it’s $50.00/hour.

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