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Mayor’s Solution to City Attorney Exodus: Bring on Unpaid Lawyers

Documents show the mayor’s counsel readying to recruit pro bono legal staffing from private law firms, as low pay and strict work conditions leave hundreds of jobs vacant.

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Family Court is one of the many places where the city lacks lawyers. Brooklyn Family Court is pictured, Aug. 25, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

City Hall is trying a novel approach to address a shortage of attorneys willing to work at the lower salaries offered by municipal government — by getting lawyers to work at no cost.

Documents show that Mayor Eric Adams tapped his chief counsel Brendan McGuire, a former partner at the global law firm WilmerHale, to lead an effort to recruit pro bono attorneys from private law firms. 

“The initiative seeks to encourage City service among junior attorneys at private law firms and to alleviate the City’s current attorney hiring challenges,” the documents say. “It proposes to accomplish this goal by enhancing pro bono engagements to expose junior attorneys to the full range of the City’s legal work.”

The Conflicts of Interest Board granted McGuire approval to oversee the initiative, which could include conducting business with his former law firm. In the approval letter, the board says the city is also developing a fellows program under which private law firms would lend junior attorneys to the city for a year.

The measure comes amid a City Council review — including at a public hearing this past Friday — of city government staffing shortages, which took hold during a 2020 COVID hiring freeze and have persisted into the ninth month of the administration of Mayor Eric Adams.

A Council report in connection with last week’s oversight hearing identified nearly 1,200 vacancies at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — about 19% short of the agency’s budgeted headcount — and more than 2,200 open positions at the city’s Department of Social Services, roughly a 17% shortfall. 

At the hearing, Saul Fishman, president of the Civil Service Bar Association, which represents attorneys working in 40 city agencies, said his union’s membership has fallen by 22% since the start of the pandemic because of departures from government  — from 1,057 to 831 people. 

City lawyers handle everything from police misconduct lawsuits to foster care cases.

The majority of the losses came after former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s full-time return-to-office mandate, which went into effect last September. Adams and his top staffers have doubled down on that mandate this year, and on Monday, the mayor reiterated his stance.

“I’m not just a chorus about returning to work — I wrote the song,” he said at a press conference. “It’s time to get back to work. You cannot hang out in the nightclub on Sunday but you’re afraid to come to work on Monday.”

Meanwhile, many private employers offer flexibility to work remotely part or even all of the time — and typically pay more.

Mayor Eric Adams has directed chief legal adviser Brendan McGuire, pictured in June, to fill the city’s attorney job openings with unpaid lawyers.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I have to say that, although we’ve endured tough times before, we have never suffered the mass exodus that we are currently experiencing,” Fishman testified to the Council.

On Monday, he told THE CITY that the city’s struggles with hiring and keeping attorneys stems from a number of solvable factors: Low starting pay, an in-city and in-state residency requirement, and the inability to work remotely or in a hybrid format.

Fishman said the city’s pro bono program, which is to be called the New York City Legal Initiative, appears to be a “Band-Aid” that doesn’t attempt to address the wider issues. He added that he would have been willing to work with the city on the initiative if it were part of a longer-term solution to the staffing challenges.

“Let’s see that you’re taking reasonable steps to solve the problem and sure, we’ll work with you,” he said.

On Monday, PoliticoNY reported that the Adams administration is asking city agencies to cut their budgets by 3% prior to June 30, and by 4.75% in each of the next three years.

Back-to-Office Backlash

Fishman and his bar association colleague Lee Gordon said that attorney shortages are plaguing particular agencies and units, including the Administration for Children’s Services — where some attorneys battle in family court to protect young children from abusive families.

They said the association’s membership of attorneys at ACS fell by 28% — from 221 to 177.

The number of attorneys at the Commission on Human Rights went from 25 to 15 — a 40% reduction, according to Fishman. The commission lawyers help build proof of alleged discrimination, including against prospective tenants.

And Gordon noted that the number of attorneys in the lead paint unit of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has dropped from six to two.

While the Civil Service Bar Association, which is affiliated with Teamsters Local 237, doesn’t represent attorneys at the city’s Law Department, a former attorney there who asked not to be named told THE CITY that one of the biggest reasons why lawyers have left is because of the lack of flexibility to work from home.

She said it’s the pleasant work environment — including the collegiality, a relaxed atmosphere and nice people — that has attracted attorneys to municipal government, who could otherwise be earning substantially more at a private firm. 

But she said COVID-19 has made working from a home a high-valued perk.

“People were very upset when we had to go back into the office,” said the former city attorney. “And I think that really caused an exodus of people, because the legal profession has also largely pivoted to either fully remote or hybrid work situations and the law department has not.”

At Friday’s hearing, Department of Citywide Administrative Services Deputy Commissioner Barbara Dannenberg emphasized that city officials were doing everything they could to address the wider staffing shortage. 

When she was questioned about hybrid or remote opportunities for municipal workers, she told the City Council that “the mayor has been very clear in his position that in-person work allows for greater cross-pollination, greater idea-sharing amongst employees, and the city is leading by example while we’re encouraging the private sector to follow suit.”

A spokesperson for Adams, Jonah Allon, said the staffing shortfall isn’t unique to city government.

“Mayor Adams has built a diverse and highly-talented team that is laser-focused on delivering results and getting stuff done for New Yorkers. And over these first eight months, we have done just that despite a labor shortage that has affected almost every sector nationwide, including government,” said Allon.

“We continue to look for creative ways to attract and recruit top-tier talent to work for the greatest city in the world, improving the delivery of services, and serving all New Yorkers equitably.”

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