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June 2, 2003

A Fee Hike Even I Like

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 9:14 am

Some New York lawyers are about to make more money, and I’m glad!  More shocking still, I agree with the position of a bar association president.

As reported in today’s Albany (NY) Times Union, Lorraine Power Tharp, President of the New York State Bar Association for the past year, considers a new increase in fees to be paid to court-appointed attorneys her greatest victory as bar president. The TU quotes Tharp as saying “It was at the top of my agenda, and it’s really made my year. It helps attorneys who work for the poor, and also helps people waiting for lawyers to represent them.”  A press release from NYSBA gives more information on the increase in the so-called 18-B rates, which became law on May 15th.

Since 1986, lawyers appointed in NY courts for indigent clients were paid only $40 an hour for courtroom time and $25 an hour for work outside the courtroom (a strange incentive, since the most important work is usually done outside the courthouse, while “courtroom” time is often spent chatting in the Lawyers’ Lounge). Those hourly rates might sound great to Joe Sixpack, but didn’t cover office overhead for most lawyers.  The fees were so low, that very few lawyers were willing to be appointed to represent indigents (mostly in criminal cases and in Family Court). Judges practically had to beg lawyers to take these jobs. In fact, the local public defender often did beg me to take criminal appeals for him, even though I had no experience in that field.

Lawyers who regularly took the appointments were often the least experienced or most desperate for work, and some made up for the low fees by taking more indigent clients than they could adequately serve. Sometimes, when more experienced and successful attorneys took appointed cases, the low fee put that client’s needs at the bottom of their to-do list (“Gee, should I work on a $250 per hour file tonight, or that $25 per hour file?”).

Year after year, attorney groups and judges pressed the Legislature to increase the fees, but lawyers for the indigent (or lawyers in general) aren’t a very sympathetic target for increased state spending.  Finally in May, the fee hike made it through the bizarre, backroom NYS budgetary process. The new rates are $75 an hour for courtroom time and $60 an hour for outside work (interviews, research, drafting pleadings, etc.).

No one’s going to get rich taking these cases, and the lack of court-appointed lawyers won’t be totally solved.  But, managing partners might now be more willing to allow idealistic younger lawyers to serve as law guardians for children or appellate lawyers for criminal defendants. And, experienced attorneys, who are after all ethically obligated to help ensure legal services for all persons, might be inspired to take an appointed case or two. (See Rule 6 of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility and Ethical Consideration 2-29 of the Model Code.)  If more lawyers sign up to be on the panels of court-appointed attorneys, poor clients should get better representation and our courts should run more smoothly and quickly. That’s a pretty good use of taxpayers dollars.  Even I have to admit it.


Special Thanks to the folks at Daily Whirl and detod’s Blawg Search, as well as BLAWG – Law Blog, for listing this newbie blawg during its first week in existence.  Genie Tyburski of The Virtual Chase also graciously mentioned ethicalEsq? in today’s edition of TVC Alert (2 June 2003) 

A tip of the tophat to Tara Calishain at RearchBuzz and Daily Whirl‘s Bob Helmer for patiently helping this nontechie (after midnight!) with his less than brilliant questions and neophyte problems.  The Editor

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