Monday, February 21, 2011

City fills attorney openings with volunteers

Faced with drastic budget cuts that have forced the early retirement of dozens of prosecutors, the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office has turned to training law school graduates or entry-level attorneys who volunteer to try criminal cases for free.

More than 100 of these volunteers have tried more than 250 misdemeanor criminal cases - ranging from DUIs, battery, domestic violence and vandalism charges - since City Attorney Carmen Trutanich launched the program in September 2009.

The volunteers, all of whom have passed the bar, go through a month of training and then prosecute cases for five months. They have helped fill in a gap left by the loss of about 70 prosecutors who took early retirement packages after an 18 percent cut to the office's budget in 2009 as the city struggled to make ends meet.

"To lose 70, 80 bodies and not have any way of putting somebody in their places was going to hurt," Trutanich said. "It was going to hurt bad."

The program, modeled after military reserve programs, asks the reserve prosecutors to return to try cases for two weeks each year after their terms are up. Volunteers must complete their terms or reimburse the City Attorney's Office for the cost of training, which amounts to about $5,000 per volunteer.

Each training class adds about 15 to 20 volunteer prosecutors to the force and teaches them basics such as what to wear, selecting a jury, examining witnesses, arguing sentencing recommendations and delivering opening and closing statements.

"We teach them things that you learn over time in a courtroom," Trutanich said. "We give them the resonance of years of experience in a 30-day period, and then they get to practice."

The City Attorney's Office receives between 115,000 to 120,000 criminal cases each year - some of which include potential felony cases that the District Attorney's Office declines to take - and files about 65,000 to 70,000.

"We could file more if we had more bodies," said Trutanich, who oversees an $85 million budget and 507 paid attorneys. "We don't have the bodies to handle the cases."

The program has emerged as a hands-on training ground for young attorneys, several of whom have gone on to be hired by the state Attorney General's Office, the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office and the Ventura County District Attorney's Office.

"It really was a perfect transition because law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer, but the city attorney program really taught me how to be a lawyer," said Andrew Mulkeen, a Studio City resident who graduated from University of Virginia in 2009.

Mulkeen, part of the inaugural volunteer prosecutor class, had been recruited by Mayer Brown, a prominent law firm, while he was still in school, but was told he could not be hired until the next year. To get experience, he went through the prosecutor program on a public interest fellowship, prosecuted eight jury trials including assault with a deadly weapon and employee theft cases - and won all of them.

"I got incredible training and experience that I really wouldn't be able to get anywhere else just out of law school," said Mulkeen, who now practices civil law. "The city essentially gets a free prosecutor. And the firm, at the end of the year, got an associate."

But the necessity for the city to use free labor coupled with the fact that grads can't find jobs could lead to less experienced and lower-quality attorneys trying cases for the city, said Gregory Keating, a law professor at University of Southern California.

Law school graduates are emerging from school to face a bleak job market in what is considered the worst recession for lawyers in 40 years. Large law firms have shed some 15,000 legal jobs since 2008, according to experts.

"You can't be choosy when you're getting people for free," Keating said.

"You wouldn't expect it to raise the quality of lawyering in general because you wouldn't do this on either side unless you have to.'

But the program is seeing more competition for spots on its roster as recruitment efforts ramp up. About 70 people from across the country have applied for the next session. And the volunteers' win-loss ratio is on par with full-time prosecutors, said Sue Frauens, assistant city attorney in charge of the training program.

"The talent pool has been phenomenal," Frauens said. "We're very regretful that we're letting a lot of good talent go, knowing that the prospect of being able to hire them in the future is nonexistent."

The volunteers are assigned to cases that are relatively straightforward to prosecute and tend to be less complex than other criminal cases.

For Josef Castiel, a volunteer prosecutor based out of the city attorney's Chatsworth branch, the program helped him realize that criminal law was his passion. Castiel of Porter Ranch had gone into civil law when he graduated from Rutgers University in 2008, "and hated it so much I thought I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore."

At the end of his five-month term in 2010, he was asked to stay in his volunteer capacity to fill in for a paid prosecutor who went on maternity leave. Although he continues to be unpaid, his savings from his civil law job help tide him over while he looks for a paid job, all while he continues to get trial experience under his belt.

Having gone through the program has given him a leg up on the competition, Castiel said.

"I can intellectually talk about what it means to be an attorney from experience," Castiel said. "I can actually sit down and talk about concepts of defense strategies and legal footwork strategies and that definitely interests employers. Putting it on the resume is definitely the biggest flare that catches everybody's attention among the sea of applicants."

It's a win-win situation for both sides, said Gregory Ogden, a law professor at Pepperdine University.

"It's not as good as being hired for a job, but it's better than working in a non-legal jobs," Ogden said. "The economics... are now so bad that a lot of operations are not replacing people who leave. So that means that the workload on those left is much higher, or they have to come up with something like this.

"It gets the work done, and they don't have to pay for it," he said. "It's a better alternative than saying, `We're not going to prosecute certain crimes,' which some cities (have done)."

By C.J. Lin, Staff Writer

Source: LA Daily News

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