Ronnie Polaneczky: Lawyers who help the poor are feeling the pinch

Attorney Neil Krum (left) with his son, Evan, 14, at their home in Ambler. Evan is autistic. Krum says he hasn't been paid since April and faces foreclosure on his house.
Attorney Neil Krum (left) with his son, Evan, 14, at their home in Ambler. Evan is autistic. Krum says he hasn't been paid since April and faces foreclosure on his house.
Posted: July 30, 2009

THIS WEEK, 1,500 frantic state workers rallied in Harrisburg to protest the state's budget impasse, which has resulted in them receiving only partial paychecks this month. Until a deal is done, future paydays may also be slashed or even postponed.

Neil Krum understands workers' terror, because he's living it. He's a lawyer who makes his living as a court-appointed attorney representing children in Family Court. It's been three months since the city cut him a check for the important work he does for a revolving caseload of about 100 clients.

And that check - for a skimpy $60 - is a fraction of the $10,000-to-$15,000 he says the city owes him for representing poor kids who've been abused or neglected.

His home in Ambler is about to go to foreclosure. He has wiped out his savings on routine household expenses and for services for his autistic son. He can barely afford gas and parking downtown, for hearings and client meetings.

"No one can live on $60 over three months," says Krum, as if the point needs clarification.

The city considers Krum a "vendor," just like the company that supplies pencils. But unlike other vendors whose payments have been frozen until the city and state work out their tangled, interdependent finances, Krum can't freeze the services he provides to the city and seek work elsewhere.

"I am legally obligated to be a 'zealous advocate' for my clients, whether I'm being paid on time or not," Krum says. "I can't drop their cases. Their legal needs don't disappear just because the city's in a budget crisis."

Krum is not alone. I spoke this week with a half-dozen court-appointed lawyers representing parents and children in Family Court and indigent defendants in criminal court. Most wouldn't agree to be named and quoted, for fear they'd be seen as "whining" by judges from whom they need a fair shake for their clients.

But the wife of one lawyer agreed to let me share that, in their home - from which they're about to be evicted for nonpayment of rent - "We have nothing left to hock."

Not every attorney in Philly is a high-paid partner at a flush firm. Stroll through Family Court or the Criminal Justice Center and you'll see more lawyers like Krum and his cohorts than you will fat-cat attorneys working on retainer to get rich clients off the hook.

Several hundred of them are on court assignment to represent poor clients. Some take only a handful of cases per year; others, far more. For young lawyers starting out, it can be a way to generate income as they establish a private practice. For older attorneys, it can be a satisfying way to wind down a busy career.

It certainly doesn't pay well. Although a private attorney might charge his clients anywhere from $250 and $500 an hour for a top-notch homicide defense, the city pays only a sliver of that, with no extra for expenses.

"By the time you pay expert witnesses and investigators, do the filings and the hearings and the trial, it can equal a dollar an hour," says veteran West Chester attorney Sam Stretton, who accepts a handful of court-appointed cases a year because "the indigent have a right to experienced counsel."

Last spring, Stretton filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the amount that court-appointed attorneys are paid. Last week, he filed an emergency motion in federal court asking that the city and court at least pay them the lousy fees they've been promised.

Lawyer Joe Mirarchi, who says he is owed about $15,000, recently submitted a letter on behalf of himself and 35 other attorneys to Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty, expressing their frustration and worry.

Mirarchi says the lawyers are discussing whether to stage a protest, right in the lobby of Family Court, "to show support for people in need and to pray or plead that it end."

No one in the city's finance or mayor's office returned calls for comment yesterday, hunkered down as they are trying to wring blood from stones. But the city's court administrator, Dave Lawrence, told me that the approved lawyers' vouchers that he has submitted to the city for payment total about a million dollars.

That's a lot of missed mortgage and utility bills.

"I love my work," Krum says."I know I've saved lives. The city should be embarrassed that they pay us so little for what we do. They should be ashamed that they're holding up our payments. In any other field, you'd just stop working for a client who didn't pay you. I can't. And I wouldn't."

Even though, if things don't change soon, he too may have nothing left to hock.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ ronnieblog.

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