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.”
The ABA standard is 175 felony cases per attorney per year, said Ravitz, who has 25 lawyers handling 200 felony cases each. Those cases include rapes, robberies and murders, which often take longer to wind their way through the court system.
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.