Mayor wants to hire unpaid lawyers to fill city legal job openings

City Hall is trying a new approach to address the shortage of lawyers willing to work at the lower salaries offered by the city government – by getting lawyers to work for free.

Documents show Mayor Eric Adams tapped his chief attorney Brendan McGuire, a former partner at global law firm WilmerHale, to lead an effort to recruit pro bono attorneys from private law firms.

“The initiative is intended to encourage city service among junior attorneys in private law firms and alleviate current problems with hiring city attorneys,” the documents say. “He proposes to achieve this goal by enhancing pro bono engagements to expose junior attorneys to the full range of legal work in the city.”

The Conflict of Interest Board has granted McGuire approval to oversee the initiative, which could include conducting business with his former law firm. In the endorsement letter, the board says the city is also developing a fellowship program under which private law firms would loan junior attorneys to the city for a year.

The measure comes amid a city council review — including at a public hearing last Friday — of city government staffing shortages, which set in during a 2020 COVID hiring freeze and have persisted. until the ninth month of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration.

A council report as part of last week’s oversight hearing identified nearly 1,200 vacancies in the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — about 19% below the planned headcount to the agency’s budget — and more than 2,200 vacancies in the city’s Department of Social Services, or about a 17% shortfall.

At the hearing, Saul Fishman, president of the Public Service Bar Association, which represents lawyers working in 40 city agencies, said membership in his union had fallen 22% since the start of the pandemic due to government departures – from 1,057 to 831 people.

City attorneys handle everything from police misconduct prosecutions to foster care cases.

The majority of the losses came after former mayor Bill de Blasio’s full-time return mandate took effect last September. Adams and his top aides have doubled that term this year, and on Monday the mayor reiterated his position.

“I’m not just a back-to-work choir — I wrote the song,” he told a press conference. “It’s time to get back to work. You can’t go clubbing on Sunday but you’re afraid to come to work on Monday.

Meanwhile, many private employers offer the option of working remotely part or even all of the time – and usually pay more.

Mayor Eric Adams has asked Chief Legal Officer Brendan McGuire, pictured in June, to fill city attorney positions with unpaid attorneys

“I have to say, although we’ve been through tough times before, we’ve never had the mass exodus we’re experiencing now,” Fishman told the Council.

On Monday, he told THE CITY that the city’s difficulties in hiring and retaining lawyers stem from a number of solvable factors: a low starting salary, a residency requirement in the city and in the Condition, and the inability to work remotely or in a hybrid format. .

Fishman said the city’s pro bono program, called the New York City Legal Initiative, appears to be a “band aid” that doesn’t attempt to address the larger issues. He added that he would have been willing to work with the city on the initiative if it was part of a longer-term solution to staffing issues.

“Let’s see that you take reasonable steps to resolve the issue and of course we will work with you,” he said.

On Monday, PoliticoNY reported that the Adams administration is asking city agencies to cut their budgets by 3% by June 30 and 4.75% in each of the next three years.

backlash back to the office

Fishman and fellow barrister Lee Gordon said the shortage of lawyers is plaguing particular agencies and units, including the Children’s Services Administration — where some lawyers are battling in family court to protect children. young children from abusive families.

They said the number of lawyers who are members of the association at ACS fell by 28%, from 221 to 177.

The number of lawyers at the Human Rights Commission has fallen from 25 to 15, a reduction of 40%, according to Fishman. Commission lawyers help establish evidence of alleged discrimination, including against potential tenants.

And Gordon noted that the number of lawyers in the lead paint unit of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has been reduced from six to two.

Although the Public Service Bar Association, which is affiliated with Teamsters Local 237, does not represent attorneys in the city’s Legal Department, a former attorney who asked not to be named told LA CITY that one of the main reasons lawyers have left is because of the lack of flexibility to work from home.

She said it’s the pleasant work environment — including collegiality, a relaxed atmosphere and nice people — that has drawn lawyers to city government who might otherwise earn significantly more in private practice.

But she said COVID-19 has made working from home a valuable perk.

“People were very upset when we had to go back to the office,” the former city attorney said. “And I think that’s really caused an exodus of people, because the legal profession has also largely shifted to fully remote or hybrid work situations and the legal department hasn’t.”

During Friday’s hearing, the city’s Department of Administrative Services Deputy Commissioner Barbara Dannenberg stressed that city officials are doing all they can to address the broader staffing shortage.

When asked about hybrid or remote opportunities for City employees, she told City Council that “the Mayor has been very clear in his position that working in person allows for more cross-pollination, a more great sharing of ideas between employees and the city is leading by example as we encourage the private sector to follow our example.

An Adams spokesman, Jonah Allon, said the understaffing is not unique to city government.

“Mayor Adams has built a diverse and highly talented team that is focused on delivering results and delivering projects for New Yorkers. And in these first eight months, that’s exactly what we’ve done despite a labor shortage that has affected nearly every sector of the country, including government,” Allon said.

“We continue to seek creative ways to attract and recruit top talent to work for the world’s greatest city, improving service delivery and serving all New Yorkers equitably.”

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