In debt, young lawyers struggle to make it
Young prosecutors and assistant public defenders are struggling to pay for even the bare necessities.
BY SUSANNAH A. NESMITHsnesmith@MiamiHerald.com
For Allison Haney, it's a good thing Publix takes credit cards. By the end of the month, she often doesn't have enough money left from her salary as a prosecutor to buy food.
Ayana Harris turns to Mom and Dad for help with the basics every month, and knows her parents will have to chip in even more when the brakes in her car go, or the dog needs to go to the vet. As an assistant public defender, she's also strapped for cash each month.
Haney and Harris are among dozens of young South Florida lawyers who have decided to sacrifice the comforts a law degree could offer in order to practice criminal law for the government. They are sharp, dedicated and idealistic, and their dreams are sinking them deeper and deeper into debt each month.
''I'm 27 years old, I shouldn't be asking my parents for money,'' Haney said. ``It's sad. I don't want them to give me money, but sometimes I do go to their house to eat.''
Haney is a top ''pit prosecutor'' in Circuit Judge Larry Schwartz's courtroom, meaning that with a little more than three years' experience, she's already trying rapists, robbers and even the occasional murderer.
She earns $50,000 a year to do it.
''It's financially irresponsible for me to remain here,'' Haney said. ``But it's socially responsible. I love my job. There's nothing else I'd rather do.''
She has about $130,000 in debt, mostly school loans she took out to get her law degree.
The issue of underpaid prosecutors and public defenders is getting attention around the country as the difference grows between their salaries and what they could make in the private sector and even in other government positions.
District and state attorneys and their counterparts, the public defenders, report losing staff attorneys at alarming rates, and recruiting for such low-paying jobs is increasingly difficult.
In Tallahassee, Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, is sponsoring a bill that would at least help assistant public defenders and prosecutors pay their school loans, but he said it's not getting much support in a tight budget year.
Porth has been a Broward prosecutor for 12 years and says he's been able to stay in the office that long only because he doesn't have any school loans.
Help with her loans is exactly the kind of thing that could keep Harris in her job as an assistant public defender, defending the indigent people that Haney prosecutes.
Harris' debts -- about $140,000 -- are crushing when compared to her $56,000 salary.
She owed only $120,000 when she started working for the public defender's office almost six years ago, but the interest has added up as she's deferred her school loans. And she still owes taxes from 2001 and 2002.
Her parents regularly pitch in to keep her afloat.
'I don't think there are many people who go to school for seven years to live in their parents' pockets,'' Harris said over lunch in the courthouse cafeteria. ``It makes me feel like I'm not a complete adult.''
She's not even trying to live well at this point. She's basically given up vacations -- her parents pay for her tickets home and she doesn't travel anymore, even though she studied abroad and used to love to wander.
''I promised I'd take my mother to Africa for her 60th birthday. Now it's coming up, but I don't see how I'll do it,'' she said sadly.
Harris' father, Robert Harris, is happy to help his daughter, but he's not sure how long he can subsidize her.
''As a father, you want to be there for them but at some point you think you cut those apron strings and they'll be able to support themselves,'' he said.
``I don't mind doing it, it's just sort of unfair.''
And he worries about those looming loans and what they're doing to his daughter's credit.
''You mortgage your life away because you wanted to educate yourself,'' he said. ``I see someone like Ayana who's willing to work in a job that probably a lot of people don't like to do. I think she should be fairly compensated.''
The low salaries mean both offices are struggling to keep attorneys like Haney and Harris.
Consider the Miami-Dade state attorney's office. It has a staff of 291 attorneys and lost 126 of them in 2005 and 2006. The public defender's office, with a staff of 192 attorneys, lost 63 during the same two-year period.
Harris and Haney don't want to be part of those statistics, but they're realistic.
'The only thing that is keeping me here is my parents' ability to supplement my income,'' Harris said. 'Initially, they thought `how noble' to defend people who can't afford a lawyer, but quite frankly, both of them are a little bit over it now.''
''I can't do this much longer,'' Haney said. ``I keep meaning to put my résumé out, but the part of me that wants to stay here hasn't gotten around to it yet. . . . It's an amazing feeling when you get a guilty [verdict] in trial for somebody who is truly a danger to the community. I'll miss that.''