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Adams Moves Ahead On Plan to Fill Legal Vacancies With Pro Bono Lawyers

The city will bring in eight lawyers, paid for by their private firms but listed as employees of NYC, to plug a shortage. Critics say it’s just a drop in the bucket.

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Mayor Eric Adams announces the NYC Legal Fellows Program at City Hall today.

Caroline Willis/Mayoral Photo Office

Mayor Eric Adams and his top counsel on Wednesday announced a fellowship to bring in private lawyers to fill vacant legal jobs at city agencies. But critics say it’s just one small fix that won’t address the “mass exodus” of lawyers in recent months.

The initiative, first reported by THE CITY in September, will bring eight lawyers to various city agencies for a year, starting in January. Their salaries will still be paid by their own law firms, but they will be city employees, according to Brendan McGuire, City Hall’s chief counsel.

According to the Civil Service Bar Association, a union representing attorneys at 40 city agencies, membership has fallen by 22% since the start of the pandemic, from more than 1,000 attorneys to just over 800. 

“The city has never needed lawyers more than it does today,” McGuire said at the announcement at City Hall. “There are currently hundreds of lawyer positions vacant and the city’s lawyers at the law department and within its agencies do incredible work every day even though we are short-handed.”

The legal fellows will be placed in agencies like the Department of Investigation, the Department of Education, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and the Office of Labor Relations, officials said.

Comparing the fellowship to the Peace Corps, Adams said it will be of mutual benefit to both the city and the participating lawyers, who will learn about municipal government. 

“Having attorneys at the beginning of their career coming into government and providing public service in a public sector environment, it can only help them develop their personhood as attorneys,” he said.

Adams said the city also plans to actively recruit lawyers to come and work for the city. 

“The city government for far too long, rested on their own success, everyone came to them,” he said. “So we have to now be competitive and recruit talent.”

Dire Need

McGuire first proposed the fellowship earlier this year to address the dire need for lawyers in city agencies. The goal was to encourage government service for junior attorneys “and to alleviate the city’s current attorney hiring challenges,” he wrote in documents obtained by THE CITY. 

But the program is just a small attempt to address the real issues created by hundreds of lawyers leaving since the pandemic began, according to Civil Service Bar Association President Saul Fishman.

“Clearly this doesn’t address the numerous problems of attracting and retaining attorneys to work for the city,” Fishman told THE CITY on Wednesday.

“Experience and continuity are very important, and this is another example of the mayor not paying attention to the needs of the workforce, and the problems that his policies are creating,” he said.

Earlier this year, Fishman told City Council in testimony that his union had “never suffered the mass exodus that we are currently experiencing.”

Lawyers are leaving for jobs at places like Legal Aid and other organizations where they can do similar work with more flexibility, he told THE CITY on Wednesday. 

Wages, too, can’t keep up with what private firms pay, Fishman said: Salaries for city attorneys can start around $60,000 and rise to over $125,000, but that’s the rarely given “max rate.”

The city’s residency requirement — which allows lawyers to live in New York counties outside the five boroughs, but not in New Jersey — was an issue before the pandemic, he said. But now the largest concern among members is the city’s mandatory return-to-work policy, which prohibits telecommuting unless a special waiver is granted.

A spokesman for City Hall said the legal fellows will be subject to these work-from-office requirements as part of their jobs, but could not say whether the residency requirements will apply. 

From his union’s point of view, pro bono legal work should be for “protecting individuals who desperately need legal help,” Fishman said. “Not to help the largest city in the country, with a budget bigger than many states, evade negotiations with the union representing attorneys.”

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