Legal Aid Lawyers Plan to Strike Courts
The union of 1,000 Legal Aid Society lawyers will try to disrupt New York City’s courts with a one-day strike today or next week to draw attention to a contract dispute, its officers said yesterday.
Lawyers’ strikes are rare, but the same union struck for 10 weeks in 1982. That strike infuriated city officials and slowed the courts, because Legal Aid lawyers represent most of the poor people charged with crimes in the city’s courts.
Since a contract lapsed on June 30, the union, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, and the Legal Aid Society have made little progress in negotiations over pay and other job issues. The union also is engagedin a philosophical debate with management over whether the society is pursuing its mission to the poor vigorously enough.
A prolonged labor dispute could have greater impact now than it did in 1982 because criminal court caseloads have grown sharply, and 85 percent of the cases involve indigent defendants. Further Actions Threatened
Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the union, said the one-day strike could be followed by other job actions — one-day strikes or a full-scale strike.
“It is very unfortunate,” said Milton Mollen, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety. “It will have an unfortunate impact on the criminal-justice system and defendants.”He said it would be unprofessional for lawyers to strike. But he would not say whether the city would seek to have striking lawyers disciplined.
As a private organization that contracts with the city, the Legal Aid Society is not covered by the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by public employees. But some legal authorities say a strike could be a violation of a lawyer’s duty to his client and invite punishment by the courts. Under the law, the court must appoint a lawyer for any felony defendant who is too poor to pay for one.
Mr. Mollen also said he would not speculate on whether the city would revive a proposal that Mayor Edward I. Koch explored during the 1982 strike. The Koch administration studied whether to abandon its contracts with the Legal Aid Society and provide lawyers for the poor through a new public-defender agency directly controlled by the city. The Issues Disputed
Besides the matter of pay in the present negotiations, Mr. Letwin, the union president, cited issues that “relate to our ability to provide the best quality representation to our clients.” Those issues include, he said, hiring more minority lawyers and providing better law libraries and health and safety standards in what are often dirty and unventilated court areas.
Archibald R. Murray, the executive director of the society, said Mr. Letwin had mischaracterized the dispute. He said it was mainly about money.
Mr. Murray said the society could not meet the union’s demand for a 15 percent raise, because it must offer contracts that are in line with the city’s contracts with its municipal unions. He said the society was prepared to offer a raise of about 1 1/2 percent.
Legal Aid’s courtroom lawyers earn from $29,000 to $60,000 a year, with the top scale reached after 13 years of experience. About 750 of Legal Aid’s 1,000 lawyers represent defendants in criminal cases and rest in juvenile and civil cases. Strike Called Inexcusable
“These are tough times for the city,” Mr. Murray said, “but that is not an excuse for leaving a client, particularly one who is indigent.”
He said Legal Aid’s 187 management lawyers would step in to handle some pending cases.
Mr. Letwin said the union delegates had directed the leaders to call a one-day strike before the end of January if there was no progress in the negotiations. The date is to remain secret until the last minute.
Legal Aid, the largest organization of its kind in the country, has grown sharply, along with the caseload of the city’s criminal courts, in recent years. The society provides defense lawyers in about 60 percent of the indigent cases. Private lawyers paid with public funds handle the remainder.
The labor dispute comes amid growing suggestions from inside and outside the organization that problems in operation may have come with growth. Challenges to the Society
Last summer, the state’s Chief Administrator of the Courts, Matthew T. Crosson, for the first time opened a portion of the Legal Aid contract to competitive bidding. He said the agency should not have a monopoly over the field of legal representation to the poor. In the end, Legal Aid kept the state contract, but only after Mr. Crosson said he had forced the organization to scale back what he termed excessive management costs.
Mr. Letwin won election as president of the Legal Aid union last year by outlining what he said was a broad platform to challenge the way the society functioned. He said the organization had forgotten its role as an aggressive advocate for poor people.
Legal Aid’s managers deny that basic issues about the organization are being raised. But some acknowledge that the stress of the criminal-justice system is being passed through to the lawyers for the poor. A Scrappier Approach Urged
“We are trying to provide quality representation in a system that doesn’t encourage it,” said Robert M. Baum, the lawyer in charge of the society’s criminal defense division, “and that creates frustrations.” “
In interviews, Legal Aid lawyers said the dispute had come to a flash point because the society’s management and its board members, many of whom are lawyers from the city’s wealthiest law firms, had become too passive on behalf of the poor.
Robert E. Massi, a lawyer in the Brooklyn office for 18 years, said Legal Aid’s board members were more interested in listing their charitable work on their office letterheads than in addressing the problems of defendants in the criminal courts. A Matter of Focus
“The issue here,” Mr. Massi said, “is whether we are here to be the Legal Aid Society for the poor of New York City or whether we’re here to provide high-salary jobs for people like Arch Murray and letterhead credits for the Wall Street lawyers who are on the board.”
Mr. Murray said the whole purpose of the organization was to provide service for the poor, and he said Mr. Massi and other staff lawyers ought to focus on the financial problems facing the organization.
“They ought to concentrate on trying to solve the problem,” Mr. Murray said, “instead of throwing rocks at the people who are trying to solve it.”
Photo: Archibald R. Murray, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, said the lawyers’ union dispute was mainly about money. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)