Monday, August 2, 2010

Prosecutors foregoing pay for experience

The job postings solicit applicants with "outstanding academic records and superior oratory and writing skills" for work that couldn't be more serious: prosecuting accused lawbreakers in the nation's state and federal courts. But among the conditions of employment, one stands out.

There is no salary. Zip. Nada.

In Marin County, Calif., one of the most affluent enclaves in the state, local government budget problems prompted a search for volunteer prosecutors who normally would have a starting salary of up to $85,093.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Barry Borden said about a dozen potential candidates have responded since the posting went up in May. Borden said he patterned his solicitation on a similar advertisement by U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in Maryland.

Despite the financial downturn and, in some cases because of it, state and federal officials said the work experience alone offered by the prosecutor jobs is drawing unexpected numbers of willing applicants to positions across the country.

"I don't see a downside," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, adding that prosecutors' offices from Washington, D.C., to California are attempting to take advantage of the tight job market. "With the economy ... and the fact that many lawyers are out of work, this is an opportunity to get experience to prepare them for the next step," Burns said.

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employees to volunteer their services for government jobs if the services are provided with no promise or expectation of compensation, according to the Department of Labor. Though Rosenstein's office is operating at full strength, he saw an opportunity to assist out-of-work lawyers or recent law graduates in need of valuable experience in a tight job market. Rosenstein still is looking for the "right one" among a dozen applicants.

"Many of the applications are from newly unemployed (law firm) associates, recent graduates and even a few who are currently employed," Rosenstein said. "People who are applying see it as a stepping stone."

First Assistant U.S. Attorney John Horn said interest has been strong since the Atlanta office began offering "special" prosecutor positions last fall.

Nearly 40 applications have come in the past two months to compete for four new unpaid positions, which would normally pay between $70,000 to $100,000. Horn said the jobs, requiring commitments of at least six months to a year, are not internships typically filled by students.

"These are practicing attorneys working with the full authority of the office," Horn said.

In Washington, D.C., Benjamin Friedman, special counsel to U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr., began hiring unpaid prosecutors last year to augment the paid staff of 325 lawyers and to assist with the heavy caseload. Friedman said budget issues were not a factor in creating the program.

In Marin County, unpaid really means unpaid. There are no stipends.

"The good thing about Marin County," Borden said, "is that there is plenty of free parking."

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY


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