A police officer turned prosecutor, Ed Ryan walked away from the District Attorney’s office last year to start his own private practice. While he plainly lists a number of reasons behind his decision, including the chance to branch into other areas of the law, Ryan raises his voice only when the subject of his public salary comes up.
”It’s kind of insulting what they pay. I was a cop for 16 years, but when a young police officer is making as much as or more than an assistant DA, something is wrong with the system.“
With starting salaries at only $28,416 and only small pay raises likely in the future, the Davidson County District Attorney General’s office is fighting not just to attract sharp young lawyers but to retain the ones it has. Last year, 10 attorneys left the DA’s office, a whopping 20 percent of its work force. Citing a number of extenuating circumstances, District Attorney General Torry Johnson insists that figure is a fluke, but others aren’t as sure.
”My primary consideration for leaving was that I simply could not afford to work at that salary anymore,“ says Colin Carnahan, a former assistant DA now at the plush downtown firm of Boult Cummings Conners & Berry. ”People are just blown away when they hear the salary. They say, ‘You graduated from law school and you’re making less than $30,000?’ “
In today’s volatile economy, high turnover affects everyone from newspapers to finance companies. Still, few organizations value stability like a DA’s office, where an attorney’s familiarity with the city, its police, and the law can make a difference between a tough conviction and a toothless plea bargain.
”The criminal law has gotten more complex,“ Johnson says, ”and experience pays large dividends.“
Law school grads don’t work in the DA’s office for the money, as Johnson correctly points out. Some of them relish the chance to battle in the courtroom, while other, more idealistic types see public service as a noble calling. Still, no matter what their motivation may be, when young lawyers start paying back their student loans, the grass in the private sector suddenly becomes greener. Even first-year attorneys at some of Nashville’s smaller, scrappier law firms can make up to $40,000.
Debt can be even more of an issue for graduates of private law schools, some of whom owe up to $100,000 in student loans. Perhaps because of that, the DA’s office has a difficult time attracting graduates of private, more prestigious law schools where tuition is steep. Of its last 10 hires, the DA’s office has landed only four attorneys who studied law at private universities.
The DA’s office is also understaffed. Johnson concedes that he is short 13 or 14 attorneys, and he’s certainly not alone. A recent state-sponsored study that examined the caseloads of DA’s offices concluded that Tennessee is short at least 125 district attorneys.
”The need is there in virtually every district,“ says Guy Jones, the assistant director of the Tennessee District Attorney General’s Conference. ”In many parts of the state, it’s a crisis situation.“
Unlike the Public Defender’s office, the DA’s office is considered a state agency and receives mainly state funding. State House Judiciary Committee Chairman Frank Buck is proposing legislation that will pay for more DA positions along with public defenders and judges. But given the state’s tight budget, few are counting on passage of Buck’s bill. Instead, there are whispers that lawmakers might try to freeze scheduled pay raises for assistant DAs.
Much to the consternation of local prosecutors, the Davidson County Public Defender’s office seems to be faring a little better these days. Although the office has around half the caseload of the DA’s, the Public Defender’s entry-level salaries are more than 25 percent higher at $36,000. And the Public Defender’s office saw only three of its 35 attorneys depart last year. When it comes to luring sharp law-school grads, the Public Defender seems to be on cruise control.
”The lawyers we’ve recruited over the last eight to 10 years are from among the best law schools,“ says Ross Alderman, the Davidson County Public Defender. ”We get hundreds of resumes and are able to make very good choices.“
That’s not to say that the DA’s office isn’t able to hire bright, ambitious lawyers and law students. Johnson has already hired replacements for nearly all 10 attorneys who left last year. But how long will they stay if student loans loom and the private sector comes calling? Says Ryan, the former prosecutor, ”Most everybody who starts out there has debt, and if they are married, I have no idea how they survive.“
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