A bill aimed at restoring state funding to a Raleigh non-profit that supports public interest attorneys is making its way through the N.C. General Assembly.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-90, filed HB 1015 on April 28, seeking $500,000 in recurring funds from the general fund to be allocated to the North Carolina Legal Education Assistance Foundation (NC LEAF) through the Department of Justice.
The bill was referred to the House appropriations committee May 3.
NC LEAF aims to keep public interest attorneys working at lower paying — but important — jobs as public defenders, prosecutors and legal aid attorneys by helping to offset the high cost of student loans to those attorneys.
The organization provides up to $4,800 annually to eligible attorneys.
“Often, public interest attorneys are those least able to repay their law school loans with starting salaries between $38,000 and $40,000. Graduates often have loans in excess of $100,000,” said Mary Irvine, director of external affairs for the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission.
Abby Johnston, a Surry County assistant district attorney, cleared up one common misconception.
“Everyone thinks you’re a lawyer you make a lot of money. That’s just not the case.”
NC LEAF Executive Director Esther Hall explained that, “driven by educational debt, attorneys interested in public interest law often forego opportunities to work in these offices in order to seek more lucrative private sector positions.”
That kind of turnover has a broad negative impact, she said.
“Attorney shortages in these offices can result in overworked staff handling unmanageable caseloads, potentially affecting public safety, the administration of justice, and ultimately, the public’s confidence in our justice system.”
After losing state funding in fiscal years 2009 – 2010, Hall said NC LEAF operates on a $375,000 budget, which includes a federal grant supplying $35,000.
“Several grants, administrative fees and private donations make up the rest,” said Hall. “Five years ago we had a budget of a million dollars and a staff of three.”
Hall is now the only staff member and works 30 hours per week.
“The good news is we are still here,” she said. NC LEAF provides loan repayment assistance to 43 attorneys who face a cumulative debt of $3 million.
Information provided by NC LEAF indicates that if the state funding is reinstated, 104 additional attorneys would be supported.
Stevens said she filed the bill on behalf of the N.C. Courts Commission, a non-standing committee that Stevens chairs.
The committee’s decision to recommend funding be restored “pretty much was unanimous,” she said.
The funding gives the General Assembly a way to support public interest attorneys without raising salaries, which hasn’t happened in about 10 years, Stevens said.
“It is a good program, but I don’t know if it necessarily is the state’s priority,” and didn’t appear on Gov. Pat McCrory’s spending requests, Stevens said. “So much is in need of funding.”
Local turnover low
There are no public defenders on staff in Judicial District 17-B, which covers Surry and Stokes counties.
Instead, participating attorneys are contracted to represent eligible defendants and are paid through the Office of Indigent Defense Services.
Legal Aid is run through the Winston-Salem office, which provides free services in civil matters to low-income people in six surrounding counties.
So the public interest attorneys working locally are primarily prosecutors.
Johnston, a former recipient of NC LEAF grants, said the support was invaluable.
“The program really helped me to focus on what I felt I was called to do,” she said.
“Without the funding I don’t feel like I would have financially been able to have accepted the job.”
However, she said turnover of public interest attorneys who leave for higher paying private sector jobs is not that significant in Surry County.
“It’s pretty small, pretty tight knit. They stay because they want to stay in the community and because they love it,” she said of her colleagues. “In bigger places there’s high turnover. It’s insane.”
District Attorney Ricky Bowman agreed that turnover is not a huge problem in the local offices.
“We have some but not as much as bigger cities,” he said, recalling a statistic that some cities experience a 50 percent turnover within a five year period.
“Our assistant D.A.s are keepers,” he said. “They’re a good bunch, dedicated public servants.”
Bowman said the program is “very helpful to young attorneys,” and thinks the legislature should restore funding to NC LEAF.
“I’m very supportive of that,” he said. “It’s often true when working for the state assistant district attorneys make less and it’s very difficult for them to pay school debt and live.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.