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Public Defenders Rally for a Fair Contract: ‘People Are Dropping Like Flies’

As management keeps winning contracts, workers say they're being stretched thin.

Neighborhood Defender Services lawyers rally to protest their workplace conditions.
(Hell Gate)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, public defenders and legal services providers in New York City have had it even more rough than usual. Mounting caseloads have led to worker burnout, and people are leaving legal aid organizations in droves, creating a vicious cycle that leaves workers scrambling just to keep up. 

No wonder, then, that workers at groups like Brooklyn Defender Services and the Bronx Defenders have unionized, with staff at the Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem leading the way, becoming the first of this wave of offices to unionize in 2019, with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys - UAW Local 2325. The groups are now bargaining for contracts that will set caseload limits, help distribute work equally among workers, and institute policies that promote workers' mental health. There's a history to why these organizations weren't unionized for so long: Many of these groups were formed during the Legal Aid work stoppages in the 1990s, with the idea of offering the City cheaper, non-union labor to help ferry people through the criminal justice and civil court systems. Any nonprofiteer will be familiar with how they operate—cloaked in the language of "racial justice," these groups often grind their workers down, even as they take on more and more contracts from the City, and expand their footprint well beyond New York. 

The workers have had enough. On Thursday, Neighborhood Defender Services attorneys picketed outside of their offices in lower Manhattan in the searing heat, with the goal of putting pressure on management to bargain their second contract in good faith. We spoke with Monica Shah, an attorney in their family defense practice since 2019, who represents parents with cases before the City's Administration for Children's Services. She told us that despite being in her unit for just three years, she's already the longest-tenured attorney. 

Neighborhood Defender Services did not return a request for comment on current negotiations with its union.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How have you seen your workplace change over the past three years? 

Even if COVID-19 completely goes away, we are going to be hybrid workers forever. And with the pandemic, just a ton of 18B attorneys retired, so we've been growing in a lot of ways.

To walk that back a little bit, 18B means what?

[An 18B attorney is] a private attorney who's contracting with the court to take assigned counsel cases, essentially. So folks who contract with the court to provide representation to indigent parents or indigent parties who are entitled to a lawyer, but for conflict of interest reasons aren't able to get that representation from an institutional provider like us.

So every time NDS takes on work that contracted private attorneys used to do, that's something that the organization is committing to, and getting paid for. How does that play out for workers?

It's more work. We have increased responsibilities, we are expanding. We're hiring more attorneys. Which is great and exciting, but I think that what we found is that the status quo working conditions are not creating an environment where our best attorneys are able to stay and be lawyers, like long term. And I think what I had seen specifically is an insane turnover rate. I started in September 2019. I am currently the longest tenured staff attorney in my unit outside of supervisors at NDS. And I think that's really shocking.

What leads to the turnover?

I think the low levels of infrastructure and support, low pay, lower pay than all of the rest of the public defenders, worse leave policies. It's really hard to be able to take a sabbatical here, to take leave. In family defense specifically, that's the experience I can speak to, it is emotionally excruciating work, and it is really hard to show up for your clients every single day when you're not feeling supported by your management.

As I've talked with other civil service legal providers, it seems that across the board, these groups are taking on larger responsibilities, but the working conditions are declining at the same time.

Yeah, people are dropping like flies. And I think it's really hard to keep your morale up. Having good morale is the only way that we can show up to court every single day and stand next to our clients and defend their rights in a system that's created to trample their rights. 

What has management's attitude been toward this contract? And why are you out here putting the pressure on them?

We're out here putting the pressure on them because management is acting delusional, quite frankly, to our working conditions. At our last negotiation session, management scoffed when we shared our current workload burdens. We came to management to tell them that our working conditions are not allowing us to provide world-class family defense, world-class public defense, that they promise, that they go out publicly and tout. And management's response to that was, "Oh really? You're drowning? Show us." That was exactly what they said, and that was really offensive. And we're out here picketing to show that that is not going to be the tone of the rest of negotiations. We're not going to stand for that.  

Groups like NDS were created with the idea that they would provide "holistic defense," that they were going to do this work better than other organizations. And of course, they still use "holistic defense" in their marketing to win these contracts. What do you think of that terminology, given the working conditions you described? 

I think it's a strategy to use leftist abolitionist language to build their brand. At the same time, that's an outward brand, but internally they are not practicing those values. They're not acting like a leftist abolitionist office. That's just not what we're seeing. And the working conditions that NDS is creating is not an environment that is able to recruit world-class public defenders, to retain world-class public defenders, to nurture world-class public defenders. 

They're not coming from a genuine place. Instead, what we're seeing is NDS Incorporated just chasing contracts—chasing contracts around the country and then not actually caring about the offices that they have scrambled together to fulfill those contracts. And ultimately, the people who pay that price are our clients. 

And now, some links to close out the week: 

  • The Adams administration is a movie (directed by Quentin Tarantino).
  • Big news for 5 World Trade Center, which is getting some "affordable" housing.
  • Think you're having a bad summer? At least you're not Donald Trump. Federal prosecutors just added more charges to his classified document "mishandling" indictment, and there's seemingly another one on the way for his role in the January 6 riot. Plus, you know that guy's not doing well in this heat.
  • Witness who saw a teenager swept into the ocean at a stretch of Coney Island Beach that was closed on Thursday: "The young man probably would have been alive if there were lifeguards here."
  • A Hudson Valley judge just released three members of the Newburgh Four, and said the FBI "undermined 'respect for the law'" by entrapping them in a faux terrorist plot back in the 2000s.
  • A subway homeless outreach nonprofit that spent thousands of dollars at Wendy's and the movies while being accused of withholding help from the city's actual homeless population just scored a three-year contract with the City.
  • Landlords are suing Jersey City because they're scared of the help it wants to extend to tenants facing eviction.
  • A company that charged New Yorkers for "free" COVID tests will have to pony up a refund for the customers it fucked over.
  • School occupational and physical therapists just rejected the latest contract between the City and the UFT.
  • "Attenzione pickpocket!"
  • Two supervisors at a juvenile detention facility in the Bronx have been charged with "conspiring to deprive the teenager of his civil rights and falsification of records" after they allegedly physically assaulted a 16-year-old boy in their care.
  • A committee that reviews conditional release for incarcerated New Yorkers hasn't met in 19 months because the Adams administration has failed to fill two out of its five seats.
  • And finally, this man loves to make up new offices:
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