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Friday, October 28, 2016

A Defense For Entitled Law Clerks?

Yesterday, I told you about Northampton County's entitled law clerks. They start at $57,925.71, which is well in excess of the $43,770 annual mean wage paid to county law clerks in Pennsylvania. Unlike DAs and PDs who hold people's lives in their hands, they hold a judge's robes. Most are gone when the judge is gone, meaning most put in a 20-30 hour week. Historically, this has been an internship in which a judges grooms a clerk into an excellent attorney over one or two years. But thanks to an increased salary, clerks are turning this job into a career. Three of the nine law clerks have been employed for 8-10 years. Two are being paid $66,102.00, and are fully vested in the pension.

In addition to making this a career, clerks pad their pay with a $25 stipend from reviewing divorce cases. Since 2010, Northampton County has paid these clerks $110,225 in stipends for doing what their job already requires them to do. This money is added to their salary for pension computation purposes. This money belongs in county coffers or better yet, in the pockets of parties seeking a divorce, not some entitled law clerk.

It gets worse. This isolated crew, who are only seen during their occasional peregrinations to row offices or the courthouse cafeteria, are moonlighting for attorneys who practice in Northampton County. They are writing briefs and doing research. This might be out-of-county research, but it's a patent conflict of interest that needs to stop immediately. It completely undermines public confidence in an independent and fair judiciary.

Late yesterday, I received four "questions" that are really an out-of-touch attempt to defend this outrageous behavior. Here are the questions and my answers.

1. Do you know if the divorce decree preparation is something that the law clerks are required to do as part of job or is this something the clerks do in addition to their other job responsibilities? If it's something extra, then I don't think the $110,225.00 over the course of 6 years is really that much-- roughly $18,000.00 per year. If the clerks stopped doing them wouldn't the county have to hire another employee to handle all of them? Surely that would cost the county far more than $18,000 per year.

Reviewing the record in a divorce case is very much something that law clerks are required to do as part of their job. According to the job description for this position, a law clerk reviews the documentation in no-fault divorces and drafts decrees for the judge. In essence, a law clerk does what a judge tells him to do. So he is getting paid to do something that the job description already requires.

2. Are you saying that your sources know for a fact these law clerks are doing research for lawyers in cases that are actually filed in Northampton County? The Code of Conduct rule you cite seems to be a bit ambiguous regarding whether a clerk is forbidden doing research for lawyers on cases not filed in Northampton County. The "any person or entity doing or seeking to do business with, or having an interest in a matter before" language could be interpreted as forbidding a law clerk from doing for a lawyer that is/has been "doing or seeking to do business" any time, ever, or forbidding a law clerk from doing work for a case filed in Northampton County. The latter I would certainly have a problem with, but I'm not that concerned with law clerks doing research for cases in other counties or federal court. Perhaps you and others feel differently, but I highly doubt its being done so that the lawyers gain some sort of favor with the court.

What I am saying is that these clerks are doing research for attorneys who practice in Northampton County. It makes no difference to me whether this is out-of-county legal research. If I am an attorney and discover that the judge's clerk is doing research for an opposing attorney, it will make no difference to me that it is out-of-county research. I will be deeply concerned whether the judge can be fair. I have discussed this with several attorneys and they are outraged that this is happening. Expect to hear about it. If you are doing work for an attorney, you better wrap it up quickly because you won't be doing it much longer.

3. Why is it such a big deal that some of the judges decide to keep their law clerks beyond 1-2 years? Shouldn't the judge be able to decide who their law clerk is? Maybe the law clerks that have been there enjoy being a law clerk. Federal judges frequently have life-long clerks. Just because a clerkship has traditionally been a 1-2 year position doesn't mean that you or I should have any say in whether or not a judge decides to keep a clerk beyond the traditional time frame. Is it really a bad thing that we have experienced law clerks contributing to decisions that affect people's lives?

This is no federal court. It is county court, where historically, clerks are there one or two years. That is how the funding has been planned. So no, a judge should be rebuffed when he attempts to cost the county more money than it plans on for this kind of expense. Council counts on paying for a clerk who will be there one or two years, not one who makes it a career. A clerk and a single judge have no authority to take it upon themselves to impose a financial burden on taxpayers without the assent of Council. The pay for clerks should be frozen at the starting salary. That way, you can be there 100 years and will never get more than the starting salary. County taxpayers also should not be shackled by a pension obligation for what should have been temporary employees.

4. The salaries might be a bit high compared to other counties, but when the vast majority of law grads have, on average, over $100,000.00 in student loan debt I don't really think that $57k is that high considering the costs/debt they've incurred to be eligible for the position. Hasn't there always been a mindset in this country that the benefit of advanced degrees is the potential to make more? Don't teachers and other people with professional degrees have a starting salary in the same ballpark?

What on earth makes you think that the taxpayers of Northampton County have some obligation to pay off your student loans? This is precisely the attitude I mentioned. You think you're entitled. You're not.

I know one law clerk who I would have begged to stay forever, a Harvard Law grad who edited the law review. She could do whatever she wants, but the court correctly made her a Master.

Resolution Increasing Law Clerk Salaries May Never Have Been Adopted June 7,2007

Here's a question from me? Did NorCo Council ever vote to increase the salaries for law clerks in the first place?

This matter was first considered on April 12, 2007 and was tabled. Lamont McClure noted the inherent unfairness in singling out this group of employees for special treatment while other groups are forced to wait. Mike Dowd did not like the 33% increase. On May 17, 2007, Council voted 7-1 to remove it from the table. Council member John Cusick was the sole No vote at that time. But the consensus of Council was to wait to vote on it until the next meeting because no one had a copy of the resolution.

At the next meeting, the matter was never placed on the agenda. Nor was it placed on the agenda for the meeting after that. Or the next one. I think they forgot to ever vote on this raise.

Though I was unable to find it, better minds than located the resolution, which was adopted June 7, 2007. It was opposed by John Cusick, who thought the raise was too high. Cusick was right.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

That last one really proved your point. The taxpayers aren't responsible for this person's bad investment. And that he/she would suggest otherwise is further proof of the out-of-touch, elitist and entitled mindset that is in opposition to the very nature of a clerkship. Clerks are akin to interns and they should be grateful for the opportunity and experience the position provides. It shouldn't be a career in this county and the exorbitant salary is indefensible.

Anonymous said...

AND no, "other people with professional degrees" that work for the county are no where near this ballpark. Take a look at the starting salaries for c&y social workers, probation officers, drs conference officers, etc...low-$30ks. And the county's refusal to award fair raises combined with a crappy union mean the salary for a "seasoned" professional doesn't grow much from there.

Anonymous said...

Other nearby counties also pay law clerks a stipend for processing divorces, so it's not unique to Northampton County. In some counties - not, in my observation, Lehigh or Northampton - the "stipend practice" leads to long delays for divorce decrees because the clerks apparently treat the practice as a self-employed side job and let the divorces pile up before they work on them at their convenience. It should be treated as part of their defined duties.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Bernie. Its always been this way as far as special groups getting raises and others not. If the county would just treat all their employees fairly and honestly you wouldn't have these kind of problems.

Ken Kraft said...

If this is true, and we never voted on this increase for this job classification, then we need to revert all salaries back to the starting salory with retro pay back to county general fund.

I hope someone comes up with the meeting that we voted for this or I will call for this practice to be fixed.

Anonymous said...

The way I read it the salaries are for PART TIME work. If so this needs to be fixed. And soon. Mr. Kraft, the ball is in your court!

Anonymous said...

So how do we get this situation changed? Taxpayers are powerless as usual?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of spending taxpayer money, are you aware that Berks County saves a ton of taxpayer money by assigning courtroom security and prisoner transport to constables instead of the sheriffs? This way, Berks County saves a considerable sum on overtime, because constable pay is set in law at $13 per hour for this service, and there are no other benefits paid to them.

maybe norco should consider this to save taxpayer money. Overtime costs are out of control.

Ken Kraft said...

You didn't sign your name.

Ken Kraft said...

It was voted on by full council June 7, 2007
Passed by vote of 7 to 1

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks, Ken. I went right by it twice.

Bernie O'Hare said...

9:26, Given that constables are unaccountable independent contractors, that is an incredibly bad idea. NC has an accredited Sheriff's department, something most police departments can't claim to be. Replacing them with someone who got 11 write-ins is an invitation to liability. There is no way that the county will replace well-trained sheriffs with Constable cRaZy. Your comment, incidentally, happens to be offtopic. But because you are mentally ill, you just barge in whenever and wherever you want.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"So how do we get this situation changed? Taxpayers are powerless as usual?"

The solution is to adopt a resolution modifying the position of lawclerk and providing specifically that the appointment made by a judge expires after three years and that the salary shall not be increased over that three-year period. The resolution should expressly ban the clerk from accepting any other payment than a salary for the performance of his or her duties with the county. The clerk should also be expressly banned from performing any other legal work unless it is approved in advance by the supervising judge AND the President Judge.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, those that are already employed would probably be grandfathered in just like when the nepotism policy took effect. However, I am happy that those employees were retained because I really like one clerk who works for his nephew and he seems to do a good job!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Those already vested in the pension would be grandfathered. Those who are currently employed but not vested are not. It should be made clear to them that they are there for 1-2 years. The clearest way to do this is via resolution.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Part 2

Finally, I'd like to clarify some of my comments from my initial post yesterday that prompted today's follow up:

1. My point in mentioning the student loan debt was not to suggest that the taxpayers should be responsible for paying the debt. My purpose was to suggest that $57k is not an overtly "high" starting salary in light of the amount of education one must obtain and debt one must incur to be eligible for the position. I am of the belief that these things matter in any discussion on one's employment value. Society has placed education at the forefront of the road to better paying jobs. Higher levels of education generally coincide specialized professions such as doctors, lawyers, etc...which in turn cost more to those in need of the specialized professions. Since this is the way our society has kind of developed and we require these law clerks to go through 7 years of post-secondary education and incur the amount of debt they must simply to be eligible for the job, I believe it's something that should be considered in any intellectual conversation about the topic. I'd side with anyone who believes the cost of higher education, and even primary/secondary education, is borderline criminal today. I realize that this a choice that these law clerks have made, but anyone that has ever dealt with the court system should know that they play an important role in the court system and contribute to the decision-making process of our court system. I was in no way, shape or form implying that taxpayer's should be paying for the student loan debt of another; only Pennsylvania school district's do that. All I am saying is that we should look at the other side of this as well to make any really progress. In a way, we, as taxpayers and citizen's of the county, are requiring the people in these professional public positions to incur these debts because of the educational level restrictions we've placed on eligibility for these positions. It's troubling that someone would call it a "bad investment" because the student has limited control over the cost of obtaining that education. Is that a suggestion that only rich people should obtain higher education because I am little confused by that comment? There is a reason a law clerk needs a law degree, or a social worker needs a sociology degree: we want them to know what they're doing because they are typically involved in very important decisions. That takes time and money. Hypothetically, if I ran a company that required someone to have a particular set of skills that cost the employee $500-$1000 per month and didn't give that any consideration to their compensation, then I'd imagine my company would have a very difficult time getting and keeping good employees and my business would obviously suffer. This is just something that I personally consider because it makes sense to me and anyone is welcome to disagree.

2. I also disagree with Bernie's comment that all the law clerk does is "hold the judge's robe." He knows that this is not true. However, if they're not working the appropriate hours then this needs to be addressed.

Anonymous said...

Part 3

3. I agree with you about the pension aspect of this issue. This is mainly because I believe the pension system is an outdated practice and simply unsustainable. I fear that the pension bubble is going to burst in the very near future unless something is done soon.

4. I see Bernie's point of the historical nature of the position and somewhat agree. However, I've also seen how important it is to have an experienced law clerk involved with a case. I don't particularly care one way or another, but I don't see the harm in allowing a judge to keep a clerk as long as he/she wants to. I understand the issue with the salary increases and do think that this needs to be addressed, but what I am even more concerned by the fact that this may be an issue county council and the other powers at be are only now realizing it. It happened in 2007 for goodness sake.


I'm encouraged by the dialog that this has sparked and believe that these issues should be analyzed on a universal basis as someone else suggested. I'd also love to see a piece from Bernie on similar issues in school districts and other government offices if that is something that interests him. Bernie, I appreciate your perspective on most of these issues.

Anonymous said...

Part 2 @ 1:57

"My purpose was to suggest that $57k is not an overtly "high" starting salary in light of the amount of education one must obtain and debt one must incur to be eligible for the position"

You sound like someone trying to set the price of a used car based on what he just put into it in repairs and not on its fair-market value.

There doesn't seem to be a shortage of law graduates to fill these positions.

Bernie O'Hare said...

This is a blog about law clerks, not constables. I have justr deleted two comments that insist on discussing it aftter I've already made clear it is off topic. It is rude to hijack a blog thread, especially after being warned.

Anonymous said...

Part 1

Bernie-

Haha...I am glad my earlier post has contributed to the blog and has attracted some attention to what is being perceived as an "entitlement mentality." First, I am not a law clerk and have never been one, which is part of the reason I brought up some of those points. I posed those questions because I too care about the amount of money the government spends that the taxpayers are ultimately responsible for. I am a taxpayer. I care about how much comes out of my paycheck every two weeks. I am a registered republican and believe that society would function more efficiently with a more limited government. So I strongly agree with you and many of the commenters of the issue overall and am not "out of touch" in the slightest.

My main purposed in writing the long comment was to present questions that I had with a few "what if" scenarios in which I could see there being a justification for the salaries. I hope that we can all be adults and not interpret that last sentence as me saying that the salaries are justified because that is most definitely not what I am saying. I am simply saying that I try not to look at all things in black and white and prefer to obtain the most information I can before I pass judgment on people, which is what we are all doing here and at times needs to be done.

However, I also think that it benefits society as a whole to have some of the best and brightest working in our government.

More importantly, I think this particular topic should be a segue into a much larger discussion on government inefficiency as a whole. Bernie, you take and welcome conflicting views on this blog as long as they are presented in a polite and respectful manner. I think I am accomplishing that goal, and mean no disrespect when I say that it was unfair of you to single out this one particular group of people when you know full well this is a much larger issue. I respect your work and consider you very credible because you genuinely care about the public. However, I have to first question the timing of this topic. Lehigh Valley Live posted a story with Norco salaries years ago and I don't recall you posting much about that. If you did, I apologize for my ignorance. Second, why just the law clerks? There are people in governmental office in Northampton County that some might think exhibit this "entitlement" mentality. Third, why the praise for the PD's and DA's. There are several Assistant DA's and the majority of Assistant PD's are part-time (what constitutes part-time? are there required hours?)and make roughly $10,000-$12,000 less than the law clerks according to the Lehigh Valley Live database:
http://www.lehighvalleylive.com/breakingnews/index.ssf/2014/03/lehigh_valley_salaries.html

I am not insinuating that you have any ulterior motive it just raises some questions for me.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"it was unfair of you to single out this one particular group of people when you know full well this is a much larger issue."

So you would have be let this practice continue another year or so while I look into all of the 2,200 people who work at the County? I don't think so. What is going on with the law clerks needs to be pointed out nowm so the practice can be corrected.

"Lehigh Valley Live posted a story with Norco salaries years ago and I don't recall you posting much about that"

I did write about it and was offended.Just because you can do something does not mean you should. Many of those low level workers who are paid a pittance wewre actually humuliated, and heard all about it from their neighbors. I am interested in curbing practices that represent a sense of entitlement or oare piggish. But I do noit believe in going about it with a sledge hammer, as LVL did.

Anonymous said...

In reply to 3:04 p.m.

I guess in a way I am saying I would consider the amount of money it would take to repair car to determine the price to sell a car. Otherwise, you would continually lose money and be out of the car market very quickly. I think also think the analogy is flawed because there is a completely separate market for used cars v. new cars. The amount of knowledge one obtains through becoming educated generally isn't something that depreciates over the course of time like a used car. Do you think that the auto companies consider the cost to build a new car when they determine pricing? Of course they do. If you don't think the value of a product is at least partially determined on the cost it takes to create that product, then you were likely sick the day they taught that in economics 101.

All I am saying is that this discussion needs to be more than "I think they make too much" without further discussion about why. If your reason is that other counties don't pay as much then fine. I personally don't think the salaries are a problem in light of the governmental waste as a whole, which includes double-dipping detectives, sheriff's officers and other county employees. If that makes me "sound like" a particular type of person then I accept that. I can just as easily say that you are the "type" of person who tries to make uses an analogy to make a point, but doesn't understand that the analogy made proves the point of the person they disagree with.

Anonymous said...

"Do you think that the auto companies consider the cost to build a new car when they determine pricing?"

Prices are based on what the customers are willing to pay, not on what it costs to make a car. If they can't make a car at a price customers are willing to pay, they go out of business (that is unless the government steps in and creates an artificial market---cf. cash for clunkers).

Anonymous said...

"It's troubling that someone would call it a "bad investment" because the student has limited control over the cost of obtaining that education. Is that a suggestion that only rich people should obtain higher education because I am little confused by that comment."

Sorry to have caused confusion, allow me to explain. Law school can be a bad investment because it is wildly expensive. If you're not at the top of your class AND planning to secure a high-paying position in the corporate world then you should expect very little immediate return on your investment. There is an overabundance of law school grads so lawyers are not in high demand at the moment. Starting salaries are low compared to the cost of a law school education and anyone considering law school should think long and hard before making that investment of both time and money.

I get it, in fact, I would have loved to have gone to law school as I have a passion for the law. But when I completed my undergrad I had to decide if I could justify or afford to go to law school and I just couldn't. If someone else took that leap then more power to them, but that doesn't justify a starting salary in the public sector at the county level at close to $60k.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Ken Kraft for doing the research. So this was done in 2007. That means it was the Stoffa Admisntration and the County Council of that time that was responsible. They were all aware and let it happen. Shame on all of them.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Stoffa was opposed to it. He wanted to wait for a job study. Angle was for it. The only member of Council then who is here now is Cusick, and he was opposed.

Anonymous said...

What a scandal.

Anonymous said...

Peg Ferraro was also on county council at the time. I guess she voted for it.

Anonymous said...

Side note, I'm not a lawyer but I know the support guidelines inside and out. Am I to understand that I could be making extra scratch by moonlighting as a consultant??? If so, attorneys with support cases in PA jurisdictions other than a Northampton County hmu!

Anonymous said...

So both Peg Ferraro and John Stoffa were in office when this happened. Makes sense. Peg supported Stoffa for County Executive over Bob Nyce and he owed her.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Peg was NOT in office when this happened and Stoffa was opposed, as reflected in the minutes. You are posting deliberate lies, acting with reckless indifference to the truth.

Bernie O'Hare said...

http://www.northamptoncounty.org/northampton/lib/northampton/depts/council/41207w.pdf

As readers who care about the truth can see from the above link, Peg Ferraro was not on Council and Stoffa was opposed. someone is telling lies.

Anonymous said...

Whomever is involved the entire affair seems like a mess. Hopefully it will be resolved. The ball is in county councils court.

Anonymous said...

There are 3 parts to County Government: THE COURTS, THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY AND WHATS LEFT.Two of them do whatever they want to. Wanna guess which two they are?