A revolving door of public attorneys
Better pay at private firms is causing lots of turnover
Jad Brewer graduated law school in 2003 and became a prosecutor with the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office.
But with outstanding student loans and a chance to make more money, Brewer left his $43,000-a-year job in August to be a private attorney with an Altamonte Springs firm.
"I wasn't disgruntled or anything. They just can't pay enough," said Brewer, 28, adding that his new job brought a "substantial" raise in pay.
Brewer is among 26 prosecutors who have left the Orange-Osceola office this year. The Orange-Osceola Public Defender's Office lost 25 attorneys.
Officials say the problem isn't new and isn't going to get better. Law schools are churning out more attorneys with massive student loans. Central Florida is a booming region, and with that growth comes more crime -- and more cases to the courthouses. Last year, authorities made more than 1 million arrests in Orange County alone. At the same time, private law firms are enticing new attorneys with higher salaries -- and state agencies can't compete.
"I can't ask them to grow old with me," said Orange-Osceola Public Defender Bob Wesley, whose office has one of the highest turnover rates in the state. "The gap that kills us is the 18-month to three-year employee. It's no coincidence that the student-loan obligation kicks in around that time."
Wesley has often said he doesn't expect his assistant public defenders to stay more than five years, because he knows he doesn't have the money to pay them.
State attorneys' offices suffer the same problem.
"If we can get them past three years, we can keep them much longer," said Ric Ridgway, the chief assistant state attorney in the 5th Circuit, which covers Lake, Sumter, Marion, Citrus and Hernando counties.
Central Florida assistant public defenders and prosecutors with up to three years' experience average between $40,000 and $56,000 a year, according to the Judicial Administration Commission, a Tallahassee-based organization that provides administrative support for the state's 20 public defenders' offices and state attorneys' offices.
Recognizing the low pay, some recruiters ask job candidates how much loan debt they face. For some, it's more than $100,000.
"It's one of the factors we consider when looking at how long they are going to stay with us," Ridgway said.
In the 2005-06 fiscal year, the turnover rate in state attorneys' offices averaged 20 percent across the state. Statewide, turnover in the public defenders' offices averaged 26 percent.
The Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office -- with 23 percent turnover -- was the only Central Florida state attorney's office above the state average. The public defenders' offices were higher. The 18th Circuit, which covers Seminole and Brevard counties, had 57 percent. The 5th Circuit had a 21 percent turnover rate, and the 10th Circuit, which is Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, had 26 percent.
"Turnover is getting to be an insurmountable problem," said Skip Babb, the 5th Circuit public defender and former president of the Florida Public Defender Association. "It's not just the money. It's the job satisfaction."
Last spring in Orlando, for the first time, the Public Defender Association hosted a statewide job fair.
"The job is hard and is getting harder," Babb said. "It's not easy to go over to the jail and try to explain to [clients] that they are looking at 20 years and have to spend 85 percent of the time before they become eligible for parole."
Some young lawyers use their short time with the state to get more trial experience before going into the private sector.
"I wanted immediate courtroom experience and experience handling my own caseload," said Shane Fischer, 29, who worked at the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office from 2001 to 2004. "At a private law firm, it would take about five years to get the same type of experience."
Some in the legal community are trying to find incentives for prosecutors and assistant public defenders to stay longer.
In Broward County this year, a group of former prosecutors started an organization dubbed Friends of Florida Assistant State Attorneys. They plan to lobby legislators to pass a loan-forgiveness program -- an effort that has failed the past five years. The program would allow prosecutors and assistant public defenders to get $3,000 a year in loan money after they serve three years. After five, the amount goes up to $5,000 year. The repayment caps at $44,000.
Loan forgiveness -- while court officials would accept the money -- raises fairness issues, some say.
It's a question of whether giving extra to those with school debt is fair to those who worked through law school and took out small loan amounts, said Randy Means, a spokesman for the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office.
"I think their intentions are good," he said.
Luckily, recruiters can still find eager lawyers coming out of school wanting to work for their offices.
Florida State University law-school graduate Jonathan Kerr, 26, liked what he heard from Wesley and took a job with the Orange-Osceola Public Defender's Office in March.
"I don't know how long I'll stay," Kerr said. "I'm not looking for another job. I like my job."