Low pay and moral spurs motivate change, leader says

Suffolk County Legal Aid Attorneys Seek Union




The attorneys working for the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County have taken the first steps toward forming a union in an effort to improve the working conditions and pay for the lawyers who defend the indigent.

The Suffolk County Legal Aid Society Attorneys Association has petitioned the local chapter of Legal Aid to recognize it as the official union for the attorneys. A founding member and staff attorney for the association, Arthur Burdette, explained the move last week.

Each branch of the Legal Aid Society, he said, operates independently from the others as its own not-for-profit. The problem in Suffolk County, Burdette said, is pay. In New York City, he said, Legal Aid attorneys start at $66,000, contrasted with the roughly $55,000 starting pay in Suffolk County. In Nassau County, the starting pay is roughly the same as in Suffolk, Burdette said, but the pay level rises as the attorneys gain experience.

On the other hand, Burdette said, in Suffolk, a good young attorney, who has to travel greater distances to the courthouses spread out across the county than those working in Nassau, can find themselves stuck at their entry-wage level for years.

This creates an incentive among good young attorneys to quickly look elsewhere for work. “Many experienced trial attorneys left to become prosecuting attorneys with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office,” Burdette said, adding, “It also makes it much harder for Legal Aid to recruit.” That lowers the bar in terms of some of the young potential attorneys applying for work. Fifty percent of recent applicants fresh out of law school to the Suffolk County society had to be turned away when they failed their bar exams.

Burdette said his group has a tentative agreement with Suffolk County’s branch to gain recognition for the group voluntarily. “We are open to further discussions,” he said. At the same time, it is filing with the National Labor Board.

Burdette is one of three attorneys spearheading the drive to unionize the LASSC. The other two are Lani Houston and Kathleen Evers.

Burdette’s route to his current post is an unusual one. He was a career firefighter in Garden City and a member of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1588 who worked his way through law school, then served as a prosecuting attorney for the Suffolk County DA’s office for five years before joining Legal Aid. He believes that, in the end, the union will strengthen Legal Aid in Suffolk County, as the lawyers fight for justice for the indigent.

t.e@indyeastend.com