Public defenders moonlight to pay off school debtby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Public Defender's office will ask the Legislature for about $20 million for the next biennium. Earlier this year, the office had to lay off attorneys after lawmakers cut more than $1 million out of its budget. That came on top of a nearly $4 million deficit. The office wants to hire back attorneys and try to raise salaries. For some Minnesota public defenders, getting a raise might allow them to stop moonlighting.
St. Paul, Minn. — In Corey Sherman's second year of law school she tagged along with an attorney to visit a client in a county jail. After that experience public defense became her calling.
"I walked into the jail and saw a sea of non-white faces, and from that moment I realized that we have some socioeconomic problems," she said. And from then on I had a purpose--defending the Constitution is important."
To become a public defender, Sherman had to complete the same requirements as any Minnesota-licensed attorney. She had to get a bachelor's degree, go to law school and pass the bar exam. She did all three. Sherman worked in addition to attending classes, but seven years of academia left her $90,000 in debt from school loans.
Law school is expensive. Three years of tuition and books alone can average about $75,000. An American Bar Association study finds that's also the average amount of debt students incur from law school alone.
Sherman said she was fortunate because Hamline Law School awarded her a partial scholarship. After three years as a public defender, she got a raise in September to $60,000 year. And while that's a good salary by most standards, it's not in comparison to private attorneys and it's not enough to make her loan payments.
"My student loans are about 30 percent of my (take home) monthly income. It's about $750 a month that I pay in law school loans and undergrad loans combined," she said.
So Sherman moonlights at two other jobs to supplement her salary as a public defender. She tutors Hamline law students after work. And on most Saturdays she tends bar for a caterer. On a recent Saturday, she was setting up the bar for a wedding.
While the initial investment in becoming an attorney is the same whether you work in the public defenders office or a major law firm, the pay is not. Sherman could earn at least a third more working as a private attorney and give up her side jobs.
That's exactly what Shannon Elkins did. Elkins graduated from the University of Minnesota with $80,000 of mostly law school debt. While working as a Hennepin County public defender, she waitressed two to three times per week.
She and her husband wanted to settle down and start a family. But working two jobs was just too much.
"I just got to the point where we couldn't pay our bills, and I went through seven years of school and worked really hard to become a lawyer," Elkins said. "So I finally got to the point where I was tired, I was working two jobs and just couldn't believe I put in all this time and effort to end up that way."
Elkins now works as a criminal defense lawyer in private practice.
Rank and file public defenders have asked for parity with the lawyers in the Minnesota Attorney General's office whose salaries start at about $7,000 more.
Kevin Kajer, from the state public defender's board says two years ago the board tried to get parity with county attorneys' salaries, which is slightly less than the attorney general's office. The board also asked the Legislature for money to hire more attorneys.
"We didn't get enough money to do either one," he said. "It's always difficult to get more money to pay people more for them to do the same work. That's a difficult sell."
Minnesota's Chief Justice Eric Magnuson says public defenders should get paid more and that the state needs more of them. The public defender's budget is separate from the state court's budget, so the board of public defense lobbies its case at the Legislature. Magnuson doesn't support adding their budget to the court's budget.
He has convened the Coalition to Preserve the Minnesota Judicial System, which includes representatives from 20 different groups, including the public defenders. Magnuson said the coalition will work on a common strategy, mutually support each other's funding requests, and inform the Legislature and governor about how all the pieces of the justice system fit together.
He said he'll champion the public defenders' cause.
"Yes, I'm going to say, 'here's what we need for the courts,' but at the same time all of these other parts--the public defenders, the county attorneys, corrections, probation--they're parts of that system and if one of them doesn't work, the system doesn't work," Magnuson said.
In the meantime, Corey Sherman said there are times when she asks herself whether it's really worth it.
"Is working multiple jobs worth it? That answer is yes, because I'm still doing it," Sherman said. "The problem will arise when I get to the point where I want to have a family because I wont' be able to work all kinds of crazy extra hours."
This past August, President Bush signed into law a partial loan forgiveness program for people who agree to work as local prosecutors and public defenders. Congress hasn't funded it yet. It would apply only to government loans so those like Sherman who consolidated their loans with private banks wouldn't be eligible.
- Morning Edition, 11/10/2008, 6:55 a.m.