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Budget cuts hit court research staff

Unpaid holidays, no medical benefits and no pension are not things that someone with $100,000 in law school debt would find particularly attractive when applying for a job.

Not to mention an almost annual threat that the position could be eliminated or subject to a pay cut. But that’s the reality for the rotating group of 10 attorneys working as legal research interns in Milwaukee County.

“I’m sure people are happy to have jobs, but at the same time you want them to have a job that helps them live,” said Milwaukee County Clerk of Court John W. Barrett.

The $40,000-a-year positions within the Civil Division generally involve case analysis, citation review and drafting of initial opinions in administrative appeals. In addition, the interns also serve as bailiffs during jury trials.

Despite the low pay and the fact that civil caseloads are on the rise in the county, the intern positions are regularly on the budgetary chopping block.

In 2009, County Executive Scott Walker sought to replace nine intern positions with administrative assistants at half the cost. This year, the positions were subjected to the equivalent of two furlough days.

Barrett expects the positions to be targeted again in 2011, based on preliminary budget discussions.

He said a salary cut of as much as $7,000 is possible, although Walker’s formal budget plan will not be introduced until Sept. 30.

Regardless, Judge David A. Hansher, co-chair of the court’s Law Clerk Committee, argued that is has become increasingly difficult to attract attorneys willing to sacrifice vacation and benefits for experience.

“It’s tough enough now, even though it’s a bad job market,” he said. “We’ve still hired high quality candidates, but I don’t know who we would attract if salaries are in the 30s.”

As a recent intern for Judge Charles F. Kahn, Jr., attorney Lauren F. Jankowski has firsthand experience with the rigors of the job and its challenges.

The 2009 UW Law School graduate spent a year as an intern before heading to Boston in June.

While she was aware of the salary and lack of benefits, Jankowski was still “shocked” that a full-time county-funded position would not include health care, vacation or any kind of retirement plan.

“I made the argument that we were independent contractors technically paid at an hourly rate,” said Jankowski, who took a part-time job to supplement her income during the year.

While most counties do provide benefits to legal research interns, or the equivalent, Milwaukee is an anomaly because of a longstanding agreement with the county.

As part of a cost-saving arrangement, interns serve in a dual capacity as bailiffs in the Civil Division. The county saves money by not having to pay salary and benefits for full-time bailiffs for the Civil Division. The court is able to maintain positions that can be filled by lawyers who can conduct research.

Kahn called the constant attempts to trim intern positions “despicable” because the system is already stretched thin.

He said the economic downturn has led to an increase in the number of civil suits filed to the point where judges take a hundred per month, which means interns are critical in making sure case files are thoroughly reviewed.

“They do the vital task of culling through arguments and giving us their own insight, as well as checking out case law analysis and citations,” Kahn said. “If the state and county had resources to provide additional judges, maybe we could reduce the number of law clerks, but I’m not sure that is feasible.”

Hansher, who is currently in the Felony Division, said legal research interns continue to be a bargain for the county, given the amount of work they do.

It is not unusual for many to work second jobs as waitresses or bartenders during their one- and two-year terms, he said.

Should positions be cut or go unfilled, he said judges from other divisions would likely have to fill in to handle the workload.

“We sell it as a resume-building job where you get to know judges,” Hansher said. “But we’ve had some people reject offers on the grounds that they can’t accept the salary.”

Jankowski, who is currently interviewing at several firms, pursued the job with the hope that it will benefit her long-term professional goal of working as an assistant United States Attorney.

But she shared the concern of judges that additional reductions will deter attorneys from taking the positions.

“The quality of candidates is going to decline rapidly if they are cut down anymore,” she said. “There’s not going to be a point in having those positions if you can’t get qualified candidates because judges need to rely on those people.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

One comment

  1. No one is forcing Chuck Kahn to be a judge or forcing him to take his taxpayer funded salary with all those benefits. And Herb Kohl’s cuz Dave Hansher must be hurting, too…..

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