The stack of papers on Julie Lawyer’s desk represents only a portion of the case files she tends to as Burleigh County state’s attorney.
“These aren’t as serious; not urgent,” she said, taking the top one. It’s a drug case, as are so many that come through her office, and this one is in the pile mostly because there’s no victim, no restitution needed, and nobody is in any immediate danger. But it, like the others in the stack, has to get handled.
“We’ll get to it,” she said.
Lawyer, who was elected state’s attorney in 2018, is in the same position as many prosecutors in North Dakota: short on employees and working long hours.
The shortage impacting Lawyer and others around the state seems to follow national trends. Applications at U.S. law schools accredited by the American Bar Association peaked in 2004 at 100,600. That number declined in recent years, rebounding to 60,700 in 2018.
Actual law school enrollment reached its highest level in 2010 at 147,500. It went down until 2018, bouncing back to 111,472.
And bar exam passage rates nationwide have fallen in recent years. Statistics from the National Conference of Bar Examiners shows the overall nationwide passage rate was 69% in 2009 and 54% in 2018. Those taking the exam for the first time fared better, passing at a rate of 79% in 2009 and 69% in 2018.
The decrease in application numbers is likely related to a number of factors. Most attorneys fresh out of college don’t walk into high-paying jobs, and the average student debt from law school in 2016 was $145,500, up from $82,400 in 2000, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.
With a full staff, there would be 14 attorneys in the Burleigh County office. It’s short three now, though a new hire who is working as a clerk will come on board pending the results of a recently completed bar exam.
In 2018, the average caseload per attorney in the Burleigh County office was 640, up 5% since 2015. Misdemeanor cases often are closed after one appearance by the defendant, but felonies require at least two appearances, more if a case goes to trial or if there are bail issues.
Ward County prosecutor Roza Larson feels the same pinch Lawyer feels. Her office handled 1,066 felony cases and 3,251 misdemeanors last year, or about 480 cases per attorney in a nine-attorney office.
At one point, however, Larson, who has been state’s attorney since 2009, was short five attorneys. One went to Grand Forks and another to Fargo, both to take what were then better-paying jobs in state's attorney offices where the workload was better distributed among a full staff. Since then, pay for assistant state's attorneys in Ward County has been adjusted to be on the same level. Another attorney from her office went to private practice, hoping to curb the hours and better balance work and family life.
The workload and stress of a prosecutor’s office add up. When the Ward County Courthouse closes at 4:30 p.m., members of Larson’s staff are often still there.
“I don’t know how late they stay at night,” she said. They’re salaried, and work 60 to 70 hours with no comp time or overtime. Larson by 4:30 p.m. has put in a 12-hour day. She’ll add another 12 hours or more over the weekend, working from home.
Larson hired one attorney in February. Two more will go to work if they pass bar exams taken Aug. 15. They will have to train for six to nine months before taking on day-to-day court cases. They still wouldn’t tackle jury trials at that point.
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The starting salary for an assistant state’s attorney in Burleigh County ranges from $59,820 to $66,664, Lawyer said. The low end of that starting range is close to the national average of $56,200, according to a 2019 survey from the National Association for Law Placement. First-year associates in small law firms draw a salary closer to $98,000, the survey said.
It takes the right person, too, Lawyer said, to work in a prosecutor’s office -- making it even more difficult to fill positions when workloads are high.
“You could be handed something and be in court in 10 minutes,” she said.
The workforce shortage doesn't impact just the workers -- it also can affect the pace of justice itself.
When state's attorneys find themselves with a heavy workload, Larson said, they have little choice but to handle certain cases first, pushing nonviolent cases back to handle those involving injury. And they don't have as much time as they'd like to assist people convicted of drug crimes in finding treatment.
"Then they cycle in and out of court," she said.
Similar situations exist in public defender offices. The North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents currently has openings for a legal assistant, an administrative assistant and three attorneys at its offices across the state. At full staff, there would be 40 full-time employees in the agency’s seven offices.
In the last fiscal year, the agency handled more than 15,000 case assignments, and each case assignment often can include more than one charge against a person.
Pay is the biggest obstacle in recruiting and retaining attorneys, commission Deputy Director Travis Finck said.
“Our attorneys on average are paid less than their counterparts in the state’s attorney offices or comparable state government positions,” he said, and they also lag in pay for senior attorneys.
And it takes a special person to do the work the agency does, Finck said, because it’s hard work “and not a lot of persons are interested in representing those accused of a crime.”
That further shrinks the pool of candidates. In areas of the state where an office is short-staffed, it’s a struggle to keep up. That leads to attorneys taking on increased caseloads and working longer hours. Contracting is sometimes an option, Finck said, but the agency typically can’t pay the same hourly rates that private attorneys charge.
Despite the shortage in her office, Lawyer said the work is still getting done and justice isn't harmed. The only option when the cases pile up, for prosecutors or defense attorneys, is to work until the work is done.
“We can’t turn customers away,” Lawyer said.