ALAA Roots — An Unofficial Site

October 6, 1994

1994.10.06: Mayor Moves To Cut Role Of Legal Aid (NY Times)

New York Times, October 6, 1994

Mayor Moves To Cut Role Of Legal Aid


Striking Legal Aid lawyers returned to work yesterday, but Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani insisted that he would not restore the nonprofit Legal Aid Society to its position as the primary defender of the poor in the city’s packed courts.

Contending that the city should not be subject to lawyers’ strikes, Mr. Giuliani said he would be looking for alternative arrangements to the Legal Aid Society in some city courts, suggesting that new options could be tried in Queens and Staten Island.

“We will not be having a primary, singular service deliverer for accused criminals who want representation or even indigents,” the Mayor said.

Several leaders of the city’s municipal unions, who had watched the tug of war, expressed relief that the strike had ended without broadening into a long, polarizing labor confrontation. But one union leader conceded that the Mayor had won a victory that would make bargaining more difficult next year when all municipal contracts come up for renegotiation.

“It makes our fight tougher,” said Arthur Cheliotes, the head of Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents about 10,000 city administrators.

Although Legal Aid lawyers work for the Society and are not city employees, the Society gets $79 million a year from the city, and the Mayor had said he would not accept wage increases during a time of fiscal hardship. Instead, he said he would cut off the city’s 28-year contract with the Legal Aid Society.

Disillusioned and grim Legal Aid lawyers spent much of their day back at work yesterday arguing among themselves, many admitting that their strike had boomeranged to the advantage of the Mayor. [ Page B7. ]

The Mayor declined to endorse the tentative contract agreement hammered out Tuesday night between the lawyers’ union and the Legal Aid Society, under which the lawyers would receive bonuses of 2 percent in each of the next two years.

“If there’s room for a raise then that would mean there’s probably room for a reduction in the amount of money that we supply for the Legal Aid Society,” Mr. Giuliani said, “unless it can be demonstrated to us that’s going to be done through productivity, with the productivity first demonstrated and produced rather than paid for up front.”

At a union meeting last night, the lawyers voted 544 to 150 to accept the agreement. Participants said there had been emotional speeches both to accept the contract and to return to the strike.

“We’re the best lawyers in this city,” said Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the lawyers union. “We take pride in the fact that these lawyers represent poor people not for the money but because we believe in it.”

The lawyers, seeking a 4.5 percent wage increase over two years, walked off the job Saturday after their contract expired. But confronted with an ultimatum by the Mayor to return to work or be replaced, union leaders agreed to a deal Tuesday night that was close to the offer they had originally rejected.

The average salary of the lawyers is $45,000 a year.

The bonuses in the new contract are similar to what the Legal Aid Society had previously offered. But while the management had sought higher payments by union members for health care, medical payments would remain at about current levels in the first year and then be submitted for arbitration the following year.

“I think this is a much better package than the original,” said Mr. Letwin, the union president. He said his members also won some non-economic concessions such as a union management committee to examine workloads in some areas.

Still, it was far from clear whether Mr. Giuliani would approve the new terms, and whether Legal Aid would end up with anything near the city financing it had before the strike caused the Mayor to terminate the city’s contract. Last year, the society received $79 million from the city for criminal work alone and provided the lawyers to represent about 60 percent of indigent defendants.

The Mayor said yesterday that the city might not provide enough money to Legal Aid to pay for the bonuses it had negotiated with the lawyers and the raises planned for its managers. “It may very well be that the city can save money by not funding all that,” he said, adding, “It leaves a lot of options open.”

The Mayor did not explain further how he would find other lawyers for the poor, and Katherine N. Lapp, his criminal justice coordinator, said it was “premature” to say what options would be considered. On Monday, the Mayor had said the city could consider setting up a public defenders office or contracting for lawyers with the city bar association.

Paul S. Goldstein, the president of the Queens County Bar Association, said that he had had no inquiries from the Giuliani administration. “We have an active private bar which may distinguish us from other counties,” he said. “But to contract with us on a fee basis, I don’t know, because we’d have to see what they’re prepared to spend.”

Many indigent defendants are already represented by private lawyers who charge the city by the hour under what is called the Assigned Counsel Plan. Their bills were expected to reach $50 million this year. But several months ago, the Giuliani administration had proposed giving the bulk of that criminal caseload to the Legal Aid Society in a cost-saving effort.

In a letter sent to the Legal Aid Society last night and released publicly by the Mayor, Ms. Lapp said the administration would also require that any new agreement with the Legal Aid Society include a provision granting the city the right to impose penalties if lawyers strike and a clause requiring “that lawyers who breach their ethical obligations to clients be terminated.” Mr. Giuliani had called the strike a breach of ethics.

Ms. Lapp has said that the lawyers who return to work will be paid at the rate of the existing contract while the administration negotiates with the Legal Aid Society. She said, “This payment arrangement can continue only until such time as either new contracts are negotiated or we are unable to amicably agree upon future contractual relationships.”

Pat Bath, a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid Society, said that if the city substantially reduced the size of its contract with the society, it might have to dismiss many of its 1,131 lawyers. “He would be telling us we won’t have as much work and then we wouldn’t need as many people to do as much,” she said.

But Mr. Letwin, the union leader, expressed confidence that Legal Aid would still prove the best alternative for representing indigent clients. “We think it’s clear that the society’s the most cost-effective and best quality in the city,” he said, “and I think we have a lot of allies on that.”

The showdown between the Mayor and the Legal Aid lawyers came at a time when the city faces a $1 billion budget gap this year and multi-billion-dollar annual deficits for the foreseeable future. Mr. Giuliani used the strike to emphasize that he would be granting no wage hikes for several years, unless paid for through increased worker productivity.

Ruth W. Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President who had rallied to the side of the striking lawyers, yesterday accused the Mayor of using the lawyers’ dispute to distract the public. “There are major budget problems afoot and perhaps the Mayor’s looking for a way to keep his and everyone’s mind off of them,” said Ms. Messinger, a Democrat who is considered a potential challenger to the Mayor in 1997.

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