Saturday, February 23, 2002

contract attorney crisis worse than reported

Recently the Wilmington News Journal reported on how a shortage of budgeted funds for state-paid attorneys is resulting in long trial delays. The article says that Superior Court contracted attorneys are being paid $60 per hour and that this is less than the $100 an hour rate for federal cases and less than some attorneys charge in their private practice.

The reporter in this case missed half of the story. Some attorneys charge more than $60 per hour? Are you kidding me? The State is getting a tremendous deal at the $60 an hour rate, because there are very few attorneys in this county, if any, that charge less than $150 per hour and most are probably significantly above it.

What about the rate that is paid to the private attorneys who represent the patients at the Delaware Psychiatric Center at Superior Court mental commitment hearings? Those attorneys are paid even less. Perhaps this is one reason we have lost about half of the attorneys who practice in this arena, while the number of mental patient hearings dramatically increases every year.

But we shut those cases out of the public view along with the mental patients and their attorneys. Lock them up and shut them up. Are these attorneys paid less for this work because their clients are less important? Or are these just sub-standard attorneys? There has to be a reason, doesn’t there? Perhaps they just don’t lobby as effectively.

What is an hourly rate, anyway? Many people confuse an attorney’s hourly rate with the attorney’s salary. This is a grave miscalculation, as there is very little connection between the two.

The hourly rate is a number calculated to cover the expense of maintaining an office, paying for staff, maintaining insurance, paying taxes, buying office equipment and office supplies and a wide variety of other costs associated with running the business - yes, the business, of a law practice. And if there is anything left after the expenses are paid, the attorney may get to keep some.

What impact is there then when the State pays less than the going rate for legal services? Simply speaking, it automatically jacks up the rate that the attorneys must charge their private clients.

And what about the attorneys that Family Court pays to represent parents who don’t pay their child support when the case becomes serious enough as to merit jail time for the non-paying parent? These cases are called the Black v. Black cases, named after a Delaware Supreme Court Case with that caption. More than rumor has it that these attorneys are paid even less.

The State has admitted that the Courts are the ones who will need to resolve this problem on their own. The story reported was only the tip of the iceberg. The problem that was discussed in the News Journal isn't just confined to criminal defense cases, and it's getting worse by the day.