Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why Do Attorneys Need to Organize?

The question is sometimes raised as to why attorneys need unions. After all, in private practice, we would be at-will. We would like to address the question of attorney unionization, and welcome you (and any non-AG public sector lawyers with a perspective) to join in the discussion through comments.

We believe that working for an elected official (as an attorney or a "legal assistant") is different than working for a private law firm for the following reasons:
  • The public sector lawyer is ultimately accountable to the Minnesota taxpayers, while the private sector lawyer is accountable to the private paying client.
  • The public sector lawyer works for an elected boss. That boss must campaign every four years, and the staff might have a new boss every four years. It is undeniable that partisan politics plays a central role in the atmosphere in the office, and can weigh heavily in the decision making in the office. The private sector lawyer likely maintains the same boss or bosses over a much longer term. While there are certainly "politics" to every job, the private sector does not experience the outside political pressures that public sector law firms experience.
  • An at-will public sector lawyer must decide whether to put her job at risk and say no to the elected official's request, if she or he does not think the request is supported by the law. A great example can be found in comments made recently by Mike Hatch at a CLE entitled "What to do when the Attorney General comes calling" Mr. Hatch admitted that a lawsuit his office filed against a company was generated out of his personal grudge. At least in the private sector, a lawyer can decline to represent a client who litigates on a grudge.
  • Many private sector attorneys are paid a lot more than the public sector attorneys. At some of the medium and larger sized firms in the twin cities, the new associates fresh out of law school earn 20% more than the most experienced staff in the public sector, and more than the Attorney General herself. People who work in the public sector obviously don't do it for the money. Aside from the satisfaction of serving the citizens, public sector employees should be able to enjoy some benefits, such as paid holidays, decent health care, and yes, job security.
  • Public sector attorney organizing is fairly common. In fact, just about all other public sector law firms in Minnesota and in the federal system, the line staff are protected by unions or civil service (or both). Hennepin County and Ramsey County Attorneys Offices are both unionized. Dakota County staff are protected. St. Louis County staff recently organized. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul City Attorney's Offices are unionized. The federal US Attorney's Office staff have job protection through a civil service type of system. Why is the Attorney General's Office the only large public law office with no form of job protection for the line staff?

This isn't about Lori Swanson, it isn't about Mike Hatch and it's not even about everyone in the office. In fact, we believe that there are a finite amount of AG staff who should be unclassified. But this movement is about the bulk of the staff; the people who represent our state's agencies, boards, departments. The people who have specialized knowledge in their respective fields and must be relied upon for advice based on the law, not an agenda or a grudge.

This is about fairness, common sense, and what is best for the citizens of Minnesota. This is about securing future stability in an office that has been decimated over the past 9 years by the loss of a staggering number of experienced staff; losses that have accelerated over the last several months. The drain on the office is not merely noticeable, it is alarming. Staff are isolated, overworked, underpaid and there is no objective merit salary increase or cost of living adjustment system in place. We have no voice, and no way to constructively communicate frustrations without fear of losing our jobs, or our current position or assignment.

There IS a difference between working in the private and public sectors. A big difference. There is no reason that the Attorney General needs 300 plus at-will employees. It makes sense for the line staff to have job security, and a mechanism for communication. We hope that we can achieve this goal, and get the office back on track to concentrate on what it does best: working for the citizens of Minnesota.


Anonymous said...

Where is the Minnesota DFL? You think they'd have some questions for our esteemed AG.

Anonymous said...

The DFL's fundraisers are being told by former donors that no more money will be given until this matter is resolved in favor of the AG employees' and their right to organize.

Anonymous said...

Well, at this point I am a "former donor" to the DFL, too. This story has been under the radar for too long.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the efforts you have undertaken in this blog but I have to disagree with you that "this isn't about Lori Swanson." It is absolutely about Lori Swanson. Look at the facts:
--Swanson has presided over the departure of 1/3 of the AGO's lawyers and numerous professional staff, including some of the AGO's best and longest serving lawyers and staff, since her election;
--Swanson continues to preside over the departure of AGO lawyers and staff;
--Swanson has spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on "severance packages" to management level attorneys and executive staff in return for their agreement not to sue;
--Swanson has spent unknown amounts of taxpayer dollars on outside counsel to "fix" employment problems she herself created;
--Swanson recently "eliminated the position" of a decades long and highly regarded Charities investigator, making her the second (at least) staff member to be fired for union activity;
--Swanson is currently being investigated by the EEOC.
There is of course much more.
I agree with the comments that the DFL and the press have to get involved. Not the Star Tribune, where friends of Hatch continue to put out laughable editorials praising Swanson for such things as filing copycat lawsuits of other states' actions against corporations or federal agencies. How about Ruben Rosario at the Pioneer Press, who wrote a great column back in April or May, or Eric Black at Eric Black Ink, who did a great job on the Paulose situation. This is a story that needs to get out.