Attrition is high among public defenders in Oklahoma County because of unmanageable caseloads and poor pay, several current and former lawyers said.
“Every week you get 10 new clients, and that never stops,” said Kent Bridge, a criminal defense attorney who left the public defender's office after 14 years to go into private practice. “If you don't close 10 cases a week, your caseload goes up.”
At least nine assistant public defenders with an estimated 75 years of experience have called it quits in the past 15 months, including one whose last day on the job was Friday. Most have entered private practice. One veteran attorney retired after three decades. Another went to work prosecuting cases in the state attorney general's office.
“It's difficult to replace that kind of experience,” Chief Public Defender Robert Ravitz said. “By and large, lawyers with that kind of experience can make more money on the outside.”
Most were dedicated public servants whose resolve to help indigent criminal defendants was tested by a never-ending caseload, which grew from 3,500 felony cases in 2001 to 5,000 cases in 2012.
“The burnout level is huge; it's absolutely a factor,” said Emilie Kirkpatrick, a former assistant public defender who left in December after more than six years to go into private practice. “I absolutely loved being a public defender. It broke my heart to leave.”
But Kirkpatrick said she couldn't afford to keep working as a court-appointed attorney whose clients included accused killers facing death if convicted. She said she routinely worked nights and weekends to keep up with a never-ending workload that exceeded 100 felony cases when she resigned.
“It would be nice to be able to pay all my bills in one month and not scrape the couch cushions for gas money to get to work,” she said.
Ravitz downplays burnout as a primary reason for the defections.
“I think the concept of burnout exists, but I also think it's overdone,” he said. “Our caseload is a little bit higher than the (American Bar Association) standards but not significantly higher.”