Her story is a familiar one in the gig economy era: She works several odd jobs like delivering food for Grubhub and UberEats, or helping people with their tax returns.
But Danielle happens to have a full-time job:She is a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society in New York.
The same goes for Julia Boms, a colleague who began working at Legal Aid last year. On any given day, Ms. Boms might be found in an arraignment court, handling a misdemeanor case. On weekends, she might be tending bar — a past-life job she thought she had left behind.
She is committed to sticking with Legal Aid. “A lot of people are like, ‘In a few years, you’ll go private,’” said Ms. Boms, 28. “But I went to school to do this.”
Ms. Boms and many of her Legal Aid colleagues are lawyers by day, representing those who most need, but can least afford, legal services. Then, out of financial necessity, they become bartenders, dog walkers or Uber drivers by night.
The Legal Aid Society, the nation’s oldest nonprofit legal services organization, offers law school graduates starting salaries of $53,582, which increase to $62,730 upon admittance to the bar, according to an internal document.
The overall median salary for first-year associates at private law firms in 2017 was $135,000, according to the National Association for Law Placement.
Legal Aid executives said the relatively low salaries were a barrier to recruiting and retaining strong lawyers.
They said they were not seeking private-sector salaries. Their goal is to reach pay parity with lawyers in the city’s Law Department, which pays roughly $108,000 to its lawyers with 10 years of experience. Legal Aid attorneys with similar experience earn about $90,000.
At a recent City Council hearing, Legal Aid officials highlighted the pay disparity, and asked Council leaders — who have proposed giving city-funded legal services organizations an extra $15 million in the 2019-20 budget to help close the pay gap — to boost the increase to $50 million.
“We see this very much not as making sure the lawyers themselves get paid well for their own sake, but for the sake of their ability to provide the excellent representation to our clients,” said Janet Sabel, the chief executive and attorney-in-chief of Legal Aid.
“The job is hard because you’re seeing a lot of sadness, a lot of pain,” Ms. Sabel said. “You’re seeing people kept in cages, you’re seeing clients whose houses are covered in mold, you’re just seeing really, really sad things. We want people to have time off.”
The issue of low pay for public defenders has drawn the attention of Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
Ms. Harris said last month that she would introduce a bill, the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense Act, that would establish pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors across the nation within five years.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who is also running for president, has been noncommittal on whether he supports giving Legal Aid lawyers a raise.
A mayoral spokesman, Raul Contreras, said that “conversations with the Council about this issue are ongoing.”
As many as a third of Legal Aid lawyers in New York choose to work additional jobs, according to Jared Trujillo, the president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, who pointed out that two-thirds of its staff attorneys come to Legal Aid with significant student loan debt, some owing $200,000 or more.
One such lawyer is Danielle, who asked to be identified only by her first name to speak candidly about her situation.
As the primary wage earner for her family, Danielle needs to earn enough money to cover rent, food, her family’s cellphone plan, loan payments, car maintenance and any other unforeseen expenses.
“Anything little thing that happens — I get tickets on my car and I got to pay that, or you know, a toll fee or something like that — anything like that, it just ends up throwing me off,” she said. “It makes it hard to be able to save anything.”
She said she typically will stay at the office until 7 p.m., and then do a few hours of work with Grubhub or UberEats, waiting until most parking-meter restrictions have lifted. She sometimes works a midnight-to-4 a.m. shift, to take advantage of the Uber’s higher pay for early-morning hours.
During tax season, she finds clients on the West Coast, so she can work with them on the phone after her Legal Aid work is done.
“I have family members that I support, so it’s been very hard for me,” Danielle said. “I’m out here freaking doing deliveries with three degrees.”
Ms. Boms, who has a master’s degree in forensic psychology and a degree from Brooklyn Law School, could be excused for assuming that her days of tending bar were over.
When she landed her job with Legal Aid in September, she moved out of her family’s home in Queens and into a two-bedroom apartment she shares with two roommates in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan.
She said she knew that her Legal Aid salary would not cover her cost of living expenses, combined with her monthly student loan payments. (In 2019, New York City’s area median income, which is used to determine eligibility for affordable housing, was $74,700 for a single earner.)
“I knew going into this job that the salary was really low,” she said. “You’re stuck knowing that you’re going to be straggling for money all the time.”
Ms. Boms takes weekend bartending shifts around the city, most often at the Counting Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Steven Wasserman, an attorney for Legal Aid’s criminal practice, has no remaining student loan debt; he will celebrate his 40th anniversary with Legal Aid this year.
Mr. Wasserman, 70, earns Legal Aid’s top salary, which tops out at $119,248 after 35 years.
In 1985, when he was in his fifth year at Legal Aid, he found a second job teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. By 1991, he was teaching 10 hours per week — not counting time spent preparing lesson plans and grading papers. Since then, his hours have fluctuated in accordance with his bills.
“I think that my work has suffered,” says Mr. Wasserman, adding that he and his wife were in debt until three years ago. “It’s all-consuming work, and I wish that I hadn’t needed to spend so much time teaching night courses in order to make ends meet.”
Mr. Wasserman’s extended tenure at Legal Aid is rare; nearly half of each year’s hiring class leaves the organization within 10 years, and Ms. Sabel said the primary reason is money.
“We train all these fabulous people, and while I love the idea that Legal Aid trains people and then they go and become leaders all across the country — which is true — I want them here,” Ms. Sabel said. “And New Yorkers deserve to have them here.”
Source: New York Times.