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State provides $10 million to cover added SPD positions

Pete Middleton (WLJ photo by Kevin Harnack)

While interning with the Wisconsin State Public Defender last summer, University of Wisconsin Law School student Pete Middleton decided to apply for one of 30 new staff attorney jobs the agency sought to fill.

But during the application and hiring process, he had no idea if the state would actually pay for the positions.

When the state Legislature enacted a bill in 2009 to expand financial eligibility for public defender representation, it authorized 30 new staff attorney positions for the SPD, in addition to another 15 new jobs at the agency, to accommodate an expected increase in new cases.

Wisconsin Act 164 expanded the 22-year-old financial eligibility criteria to qualify for a public defender, so individuals are now evaluated on current W-2 limits instead of relying on an antiquated 1987 Aid to Families with Dependent Children standard. The move is expected to generate an additional 10,000 cases annually for the agency.

But it wasn’t until Gov. Scott Walker signed the 2011-13 budget recently that approximately $10 million was approved to cover the costs of salaries and benefits for the new SPD employees.

Though hiring was contingent on the budgetary appropriation, the SPD began recruiting for the new attorney positions in early spring, said Randy Kraft, the department’s public information officer.
Waiting for the appropriation to be signed as part of the final 2011-13 budget was a bit nerve wracking for those banking on the new jobs, such as Middleton.

“I don’t think anyone told me about the money when I applied,” he said.

That made the Iowa native a little nervous, even after the SPD hired him to work in its Baraboo office prior to his graduation this spring.

“I had some friends who were hired last year and waited six to nine months before they started,” said Middleton, who started as a staff attorney June 20.

The updated financial eligibility standards took effect June 19. Offers have been made for all 30 staff attorney positions, Kraft said, with a starting salary of about $49,500.

“As soon as it was in the governor’s budget and approved by joint finance, we had our act together,” he said.

With mass hiring a rarity in the legal profession, especially during the past several years, the SPD received more than 200 applications for the openings. Many of the applicants were seasoned attorneys, Kraft said.

That included sole practitioner Lisa McDougal, who, after five years of operating her own firm in southwestern Wisconsin, said she wanted a change.

“I took a number of private bar appointments through the office in Lancaster and knew what I was getting into,” she said.

Lisa McDougal (WLJ photo by Kevin Harnack)

McDougal estimated she handled about 50 cases for the SPD annually prior to landing her new role as a staff attorney. She started working out of the agency’s Lancaster office June 17.

The financial uncertainty surrounding the new position was less of a concern for her, McDougal said, as her private practice earnings were comparable to her starting salary with the SPD.

“This isn’t something I do just to make money,” she said.

While McDougal had her law practice to lean on if the SPD job fell through, that wasn’t the case for Middleton and other new graduates hired by the agency.

Aside from a handful of applications to legal service organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Middleton acknowledged he didn’t have a back-up plan if the money didn’t get approved for his new position.

“I didn’t have anything else,” Middleton said. “I have a family and didn’t have the luxury of not doing anything, so I would have taken any sort of legal job I could find.”

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


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