Elevate justice, raise the pay

Issue February 2015 By Marsha V. Kazarosian

The Massachusetts Bar Association is the preeminent voice of the legal profession, and has never stopped speaking about the need to continue to fight for justice for all. This month with the advent of voir dire in the commonwealth our voice was heard yet again, speaking loudly in unison with our colleagues at the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys and in the judiciary.

The MBA has never stopped speaking up about the need for fairness in our courts and I am so incredibly proud of what we accomplished. I also want to publicly recognize and congratulate MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy, who deservedly was just named a 2014 Lawyer of the Year by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly for his leading role in the unified efforts to make voir dire a reality in Massachusetts.

Speaking up for justice and fairness is part of our responsibility as the statewide bar association. And even though we cleared one hurdle with voir dire, there is still more to be done as we work hand in hand with the courts to hone the process. We are very fortunate to have a judiciary that is equally committed to clearing impediments to justice and ensuring fairness and transparency in the process. We could not have had the progress in our system today if it were not for the cooperation and assistance of our colleagues on the bench, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude for their dedication. We are very fortunate to share the same objectives, and together we will realize them to the benefit of us all.

Right now there are two critical issues looming: legal aid funding and proper compensation for the attorneys in our criminal justice system. Both of these issues impact access to justice and both need to be addressed in the immediate future.
Access to legal aid is the only path to true and equal access to justice, This is why the MBA annually makes legal aid funding one of our legislative priorities. I want to thank the hundreds of attorneys who "walked" with us at last month's Walk to the Hill, making our collective voice heard loud and clear about the dire need to increase funding for civil legal aid. We will continue to advocate on behalf of legal aid, as well as for adequate funding for our courts.

It is also imperative that we advocate zealously for appropriate salaries for the guardians of our criminal justice system: ADAs, public defenders and bar advocates - many of whom are currently not much better off financially than those who might qualify for legal aid themselves. Low pay rates are leading to untenable levels of turnover and becoming a bona fide crisis in our courts.

This past year I had the privilege to serve on a state commission convened by then-Gov. Deval Patrick to study ADA and CPCS staff attorney salaries. The Governor's Commission released a report that recommended a minimum salary for both ADAs and CPCS staff counsel of $55,360, and that implementation occur within three years. The recommendations sparked a lead editorial in the Boston Globe on Tuesday, Jan. 20, which said, "Beacon Hill should try to find a way to grant those salaries."

If this sounds familiar, it's because we have said it before. Last May the MBA issued our own report entitled, "Doing Right by Those Who Labor for Justice: Fair and Equitable Compensation for Attorneys Serving the Commonwealth in its Criminal Courts." The report called for increases in salaries after a Blue Ribbon Commission led by MBA Past President Richard M. Campbell studied the issue and conducted a public hearing. It was the MBA report that prompted Patrick's study, and the Governor's Commission's report incorporated the MBA's report by reference.

And while rates for bar advocates were beyond the scope of the Governor's Commission's mandate, private attorneys who take these cases equally deserve a long-overdue increase to their compensation levels.

The reality is whether they are ADAs, CPCS staff attorneys or bar advocates, they require significant financial resources to train and prepare them. Unfortunately, because of the low pay, many of these talented attorneys are forced to leave their positions sooner than they would like because they can't make ends meet. And so the cycle continues. Ultimately the high turnover takes its toll, not just financially, but because it deprives both prosecution and defense of experienced advocates.

These attorneys are in our trenches every day. They have tremendous responsibilities. They protect all of us. Committing finances now to raise their salaries to a respectable level will save time and money in the long run. If the bleeding stops, and the turnover decreases, everyone reaps the benefits, and that widens the path to justice.

Our voice only works when we speak. So please contact your elected representatives and tell them to fund this initiative to raise the salaries of these underpaid advocates who carry the weight of our justice system on their shoulders. Their jobs are hard enough as it is. Refusing them a fair wage would be inexcusable.