By Jan Pudlow
Sean Desmond loved being a prosecutor.
“That sense of public service was tremendous,” said the 32-year-old member of the Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors.
Breaking into a grin, he recalled “that feeling like you were doing good.”
But the pay was not good.
Hired at $33,000, then bumped up to $36,000 by statute, the pay was downright lousy when trying to repay about $80,000 in student loans dragging him down when he became a member of The Florida Bar in 2000.
So Desmond and another fellow prosecutor, John Maceluch, quit the jobs they loved and hung out their own shingle in Tallahassee, practicing personal injury, criminal defense, and family law.
“I prosecuted for two and a half years before I realized there was just no way I was going to be able to pay down those debts, have a family, raise children, and do those sorts of things I needed to do,” Desmond said.
Desmond came to the Senate Judiciary Committee February 6 to give his firsthand experience and voice his support for SB 196 that would help assistant state attorneys, assistant public defenders, assistant attorneys general, and assistant statewide prosecutors repay student loans.
Sponsored by Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, the bill passed out of the committee unanimously without debate or time to take testimony. (An identical bill, HB 47, co-sponsored by Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, and Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Orange Park, has not been heard in committee yet.)
“Obviously, it’s a positive step in the right direction to have Sen. (Alex) Villalobos’ committee support it,” said Florida Bar President Hank Coxe, who began his legal career as a prosecutor in Jacksonville. “Our position is it should also include legal aid attorneys.”
If the bill becomes law, Florida would join 20 other states currently offering some kind of loan repayment assistance programs, and would help 800 young lawyers, according to the Senate judiciary staff analysis.
After three years of service, an attorney would be eligible for up to $3,000 in student loan repayment assistance per year. After six years of service, an attorney would be eligible for up to $5,000 in loan repayment per year. Eligibility would cease after a dozen years of service, with the maximum amount of student loan assistance at $44,000.
Most students graduate law school with significant debt. According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, during 2003-04, 87 percent of graduates from public law schools and 86 percent of graduates of private law schools were saddled with average debts of $51,230 and $64,854 respectively, and those amounts can take longer than 20 years to repay.
“If I had known my student loan bills were going to get paid, I might have stayed,” Desmond said.
His former boss, Second Circuit State Attorney Willie Meggs, wished he had stayed. He remembers that sinking feeling when Desmond turned in his resignation letter.
“I lost eight prosecutors that year. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to stop the bleeding somehow.’ We’ve lost about eight lawyers this year. I’m losing another one Monday,” said Meggs, who frequents the Capitol to his make his case for better pay and loan repayment assistance so he can attract and keep good prosecutors.
“What we have asked for this year is that it is time to give us entry level pay at $50,000, if we are going to compete with other state agencies,” said Meggs, calling it the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association’s “No. 1 priority.”
“After three years with us, they might be making $42,000,” Meggs said of the current starting salary of about $38,000. But after deducting student loan payments, house mortgage payments, there’s not much left of the paycheck.
Factor in working 12-hour days to keep their heads above water, dealing with distressing cases that takes a special breed of lawyer, Meggs said, and no wonder there’s a revolving door of turnover. He’s not just losing lawyers to firms that dangle enticing $100,000 salaries, but to other state agencies that can offer better salaries.
It’s a public safety issue, stresses Meggs, who said around the state prosecutors are handling felonies with less than a year’s experience in the office.
“It really does affect the administration of justice throughout the state,” Desmond agreed.
“When people leave because of financial reasons, because of student loan bills they’ve got outstanding, you lose a lot of experience,” Desmond said. “Most people go in there and it takes them about two years before they get into a really strong groove at the felony level. That is the level when you are starting to get your prosecutors able to review probable cause affidavits, review warrant requests, and be able to have the confidence to be able to look at it and say, ‘This is not a case we need to pursue.’
“More often than not, your youngest prosecutors are put into situations where they don’t have the experience behind them to make the call, without talking to 10 other people. Sometimes, you need to make those snap decisions in court.”
Meggs feels sorry for one young lawyer in his office about to experience baptism by fire.
“We’ve got a young lawyer — a good one, though I don’t know how long he’ll be with us — who is about to step up and take a 177-felony case load from someone who quit,” Meggs said.
“We just pulled the docket he’ll be dealing with next week. There are 40 something cases he has to be prepared for, and he’s never seen them before.”