Lawyer Pay

What is the starting pay for public defenders? Low salaries discourage applicants

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The median starting salary for public defenders is $63,638, according to information supplied by public defender offices in larger cities throughout the United States.

At the low end were Louisville, Kentucky, and the Oklahoma cities of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Law360 reports. They reported average starting pay of $45,000.

At the high end were the California cities of San Francisco, paying $131,000; San Jose, paying $121,430; and Sacramento, paying $115,257. The city paying the median amount was Austin, Texas.

The salary information was gathered by Biglaw Investor, a company that provides financial advice to attorneys. The company called public defender offices in the 50 largest cities in the United States and tried to include at least one city in each state.

Biglaw Investor was unable to calculate an average entry-level salary in jurisdictions that rely on appointment systems.

But Rosalie Joy, vice president of defender legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, told Law360 that public defenders may be paid even less than the figures reflect, especially in appointment systems that pay flat fees for cases.

“Some are so low that they can’t attract anybody to take the jobs,” Joy told Law360.

And no matter what kind of public defender system is used, the lawyers working as public defenders typically make less money than prosecutors, she said.

Many law students who decide against pursuing public defender jobs are discouraged by the low pay, she said.

“Most everybody goes to law school on a student loan, and they anticipate the ability to pay that student loan, and you can’t do it at $66,000 a year or less,” she told Law360.

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