Ravitz says many attorneys are leaving his office because they're not earning enough to pay off their student loans.
“We've lost a lot of attorneys, not because of the pay per say, but because their student loans were so overwhelming that they couldn't stay working here,” he said. “A lot of lawyers are leaving right at that two- or three-year mark, and that concerns me greatly.”
Public defenders are county employees who are paid between $37,500 and $91,000 per year depending on their level of experience, but most earn between $40,000 and $50,000, Ravitz said.
High attrition rate
While the public defender's office can be a steppingstone to private practice for some, others are lured by the opportunity to help people who are unable to help themselves.
“A lot of times, you can attract experienced lawyers who have a desire to help poor people for less money than they could make outside the office,” Ravitz said.
The high attrition rate can hurt morale and drain legal experience and mentors from the office.
“There's nobody left to help the new kids adjust and teach them how to manage the docket,” Kirkpatrick said.
Ravitz, though, doesn't see it that way. He recently hired two experienced lawyers to complement what he calls a promising mix of existing attorneys.
“We have some very talented young lawyers,” he said. “I think we're in the best shape we've been in several years.”
Still, Ravitz has holes to fill. He acknowledged the need for two additional lawyers and said he will ask the Oklahoma Supreme Court for more money to stem the tide of departures.
“With a little tweaking of the budget, I think we can prevent losing anybody and pay lawyers salaries comparable to what (prosecutors) are making,” he said.