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January 29, 1995

1995.01.29: For Legal Aid And the City, Peace at Last (NY Times)

New York Times
January 29, 1995

For Legal Aid And the City, Peace at Last


Nearly four months after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani smothered a strike by lawyers at the Legal Aid Society, the city has agreed to a contract that will require Legal Aid to do just as much work for 16.5 percent less money, city and society officials said.

In October, Mr. Giuliani denounced the striking lawyers, saying they had walked out on clients and were trying to “hold the city hostage.” He threatened to hire permanent replacements unless Legal Aid accepted a contract with an 18-percent cut in spending, more productivity and a no-strike agreement from its lawyers’ union.

Under the agreement reached last week, he gets virtually all that he demanded.

The city’s budget for Legal Aid’s criminal defense division will drop from $79 million to $66.4 million over the next 18 months, the duration of the contract. (Legal Aid will lose $9 million this year and $12.6 in 1996.) To accommodate the cuts, Legal Aid has lost 16 percent of its lawyers, through buyouts and layoffs.

At the same time, however, the contract requires the organization to represent at least as many defendants as in the past. In 1993, Legal Aid handled 126,172 criminal cases, roughly 65 percent of the city’s indigent criminal caseload. For decades, the city has hired the Legal Aid Society to fulfill a constitutional obligation to provide indigent defend-ants with lawyers.

The agreement with the city follows one reached earlier last week between the Legal Aid Society and its union. The union contract does not include the no-strike clause that Mr. Giuliani had insisted upon. But because the contract lasts for four years, or twice as long as earlier agreements, city officials say they are satisfied that labor stability has been guaranteed.

To earn back the right to be the primary lawyers for the city’s impoverished criminal defendants, Legal Aid, widely criticized as top-heavy, shed half its supervisors, shook up its senior management and has begun to restructure its offices.

The agreement with the Mayor concludes one of the bleakest and most rancorous chapters in Legal Aid’s 29-year history with the city. During the turbulent days of October, when Mr. Giuliani canceled Legal Aid’s contract, some Legal Aid officials feared the organization’s demise. The events of the last few months have left the morale of many Legal Aid lawyers in tatters.

But now Legal Aid officials are using words like “cooperation” and “optimistic” as they speak of the immediate future. “We have a new relationship in terms of how we relate to our unions and the city,” said Thomas R. Brome, the president. “It is substantially less hostile than recent history has indicated.”

The city has reserved the right to solicit bids from other lawyers’ groups seeking a slice of Legal Aid’s mandate. Those efforts are on hold, but the contract allows the city to monitor Legal Aid closely with frequent reports on caseload and expenses.

The new budget is not as stringent as the Mayor’s original demand of $62.4 million, but the city’s chief lawyer, Paul A. Crotty, said he was satisfied that Legal Aid had acted in good faith by cutting about $9 million so far. “I just wanted to make sure that the contractor has enough resources to do the job but doesn’t have any surplus,” said Mr. Crotty, the Corporation Counsel.

Among the most prominent managers who left during the shake-up were Nina Epstein, who ran the Manhattan crim-inal defense division, and Lenore Gittis, the chief of the juvenile rights division. Ms. Gittis said she would continue to work for Legal Aid part time.

Legal Aid eliminated half its supervisors by laying off a quarter of them and demoting another quarter to staff lawyers. In an unusual step, staff lawyers were asked to fill out questionnaires evaluating their supervisors, and those reports were taken into account in the final decisions, Legal Aid officials said.

No staff lawyers were laid off, although 42 took buyouts. In the first year of the contract, the remaining lawyers must give up some benefits, including five days of vacation.

Legal Aid has promised the lawyers’ union it will check salaries in two years to make sure they are comparable with those of city prosecutors. That issue will be subject to binding arbitration.

The contract also changes the way Legal Aid handles arraignments, the entry-level hearings in the criminal justice system. The docket has swelled with the increase of so-called quality-of-life arrests, a cornerstone policy of the Giu-liani administration. The Mayor wants those cases to be processed quickly, both to prevent an ominous backlog throughout the system and to abide by a law that allows defendants to be freed and a court date rescheduled if they are not arraigned within 24 hours.

But Legal Aid said it did not want a client to see one lawyer at arraignment only to be reassigned to another at the next stage. Arraignments can involve important legal and investigative matters, said the society, which insisted upon offering clients continuity of representation.

Under the new agreement, Legal Aid will assign a lawyer to sort out and handle those cases like prostitution and squeegee window-washing that are typically dispensed with in that first hearing. It will keep its traditional system for more serious charges.

Although restructuring throughout Legal Aid has been propelled by the budget cuts, Daniel L. Greenberg, the recently appointed executive director, said that many of the changes — including a new system of grouping lawyers into small, collaborative teams — would improve legal services for its clients.

The staff may not yet share his enthusiasm. Michael Z. Letwin, the union president, said that although the cumulative impact of the fall’s events had devastated the staff’s morale and left some people skeptical of the changes, he was hopeful about Legal Aid’s prospects.

“Despite all that’s gone on,” he said, “I’ll look at this as having been worth it. We’ll come out a much better organization. I just wish there had been a less painful way to get here.”


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