Pittsburgh's public-sector lawyers struggle on low pay

On an assistant district attorney's paycheck, bills and law school loans can stack up quickly.

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In 2010, Ryan and Summer Carroll were working as assistant district attorneys in Allegheny County, earning about $43,000 each per year.

After subtracting their expenses -- $1,900 per month in student loans, a $1,300 mortgage, a $340 car payment, utilities and groceries -- that left very little from their $4,400 per month take-home pay.

And then they had twins.

"We didn't have enough money to pay our bills," he said.

And that was before factoring in about $1,800 per month for day care.

The Carrolls and about 150 others working as DAs and public defenders had been working without a contract since Dec. 31, 2010, and were struggling on a static salary.

The hard-fought battle to get raises, which finally ended this month, illustrates the challenges facing attorneys in public-sector jobs and the people who hire and try to retain them. Even with raises, the pay remains low for people performing a crucial function, and is a continuing problem for local governments.

The Carrolls were able to get by only with the help of Mrs. Carroll's parents, who sent the couple $1,000 each month. Mr. Carroll also took a job in August 2011 at UPS as a package handler, trying to make ends meet.

He went to work each day at 3 a.m., stayed until 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., and then went to work as an area prosecutor at magistrate's offices throughout the Mon Valley.

After about four months, Mr. Carroll said, his wife told him he had to quit.

"The nominal amount of money I was bringing home was not enough for the sleep deprivation and my general demeanor at home ... I didn't get to see the kids a whole lot."

Mr. Carroll told his story during arbitration hearings last year as the union that represents county prosecutors and public defenders attempted to reach a new contract.

A new, four-year contract was approved earlier this month and calls for raises of 3 percent in the first two years and 3.25 percent in the last two years.

Still, that leaves the starting salary for new ADAs and public defenders at $39,372.76. Even after four years of raises, that sum only jumps to $43,023.

Low pay among attorneys in the public sector is nothing new.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, the median salary in Pennsylvania for law school graduates working in government in 2010 was $49,000.

In 2012, the NALP found that the mean entry-level salary nationally for local prosecutors was $50,000, while starting public defenders averaged about $500 more annually.

By contrast, law school grads who went into private practice in 2010 in Pennsylvania earned a median salary of $90,000.

John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, called the discrepancy in pay for public service positions "awful," and "a shame."

"You make a real sacrifice to become a DA or a PD," he said. "They are interested in public service and in doing good."

Often, those young attorneys who are willing to bear the low pay for performing public service and gaining personal fulfillment end up moving on after a few years.

"The incentive to leave public service to support your family is a strong one," Mr. Burkoff said.

That's exactly what happened to Mr. Carroll.

While his wife continues to work in the DA's office -- he called it her "dream job" -- he left the public sector in April to earn $65,000 annually at a private firm.

Coming out of law school, he expected things to be different.

"There was an expectation we would be compensated in a way that would be commensurate with our education," Mr. Carroll said. "You don't have the most talented, experienced people staying at the DA's office, because you can't afford to have a family."

Mr. Burkoff agreed.

"The salary structure as it exists tends to channel many of the brightest minds into private practice," he said.

Worse, Mr. Carroll added, is the huge amount of debt that most law students carry upon graduation.

According to the American Bar Association, for the 2010-11 academic year, students attending public schools borrowed more than $75,000 in loans, while students at private law schools borrowed nearly $125,000.

"Nobody comes here anymore without knowing what the financial risks are," Mr. Burkoff said.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said he agrees the starting salary for new hires in his office are not high enough. But he also noted that attorneys who come in receive significant professional development and in four to five years will be highly-trained trial attorneys.

"There are very few places that accomplish that for you," he said, but then noted, "We do recognize we're going to lose employees."

Even so, Mr. Zappala continued, his office continues to attract hundreds of talented applicants for open positions.

The top prosecutor is aware that some of his employees have second jobs -- Mr. Carroll knows of some who wait tables, clean offices and work as security guards -- but wishes they didn't have to.

"We would prefer our people be lawyers all the time," Mr. Zappala said.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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