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Cleveland city lawyers are lowest paid in state, unsigned memo sent to council says

February 21, 2019

Cleveland city lawyers are lowest paid in state, unsigned memo sent to council says

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- City Hall lawyers are paid peanuts while the city spends too much money on outside counsel, leaving the city’s law department suffering from “lackluster and disgruntled representation.”

That’s the message in an unsigned memo recently sent to Council President Kevin Kelly and members of council.

While it’s easy to dismiss anonymous complaints, this memo is packed with analysis, some based on public records. It’s also crafted with an insider’s perspective, suggesting that it was written by someone within the department.

I wouldn’t call it proof of a deep state within City Hall. The author seems to be crying out for help rather than criticizing Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration, which oversees the department’s hiring and salaries.

The memo urges council to pay attention and use this year’s budget hearings to ask the administration about the low pay for the city’s lawyers and its impact on the department.

I asked Kelley for comment but he did not respond. I shared a copy of the memo with Law Director Barbara Langhenry, who dismissed the complaints in it as not representative of the “dedicated and skilled lawyers” on her staff. More from her in a moment.

Written in lawyerly fashion with footnotes and exhibits, the memo argues that Cleveland’s city lawyers, when compared to their counterparts with similar experience in the state’s eight largest cities, are the lowest paid.

The data collected in the memo backs this up. (I verified the data in as much as I have copies of the salary information released by each city. You can review the data and methodology of the analysis in the memo, which is attached below this post.)

Cleveland’s salaries trail behind the those of city lawyers in Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown. Here are a few examples from the memo: A city lawyer in Cleveland with two to five years of experience is paid $49,0000 annually. Lawyers with similar experience in Youngstown are paid on average around $73,000. City lawyers in Cleveland with six to 10 years of experience make about $51,000 annually compared to those in Dayton, who are paid around $76,000. Cleveland’s veteran lawyers with more than 20 years of experience are paid on average about $83,000. Akron pays such lawyers $117,000.

Langhenry, who has spent much of her legal career in the department, did not dispute the figures and said lawyers hired by the city are fully aware of the pay scale. She emphasized that salaries have no bearing on the quality of her lawyers’ work.

“Any lawyer who compromises their legal work because they are dissatisfied with their salary should not be a lawyer,” she said in a statement emailed to cleveland.com. “The obligation of lawyers to zealously represent their clients’ interests within the bounds of the law does not contain an exception for when a lawyer believes that his or her salary is too low. “

The complaints voiced in the memo should not come as a surprise to Langhenry or the Jackson administration. The city’s lawyers – upset in a large part by their low pay -- voted overwhelmingly in 2012 to join the Teamsters. They wanted union representation to help them fight for better benefits.

Jackson fought to block the unionization of the law department by taking the issue to court. The city argued that the Ohio law guaranteeing public employees the right to unionize does not apply to assistant city law directors because they bear a fiduciary responsibility to the city that employs them. In 2017, the Tenth District Court of Appeals agreed with the city, officially ending the lawyers’ effort to unionize.

Jackson, who is in his 14th year as mayor, has never bumped up the lawyer pay scales, according to the memo. But Langhenry noted in her response to me that city lawyers have received cost-of-living raises during most years.

The last increase in the pay scale for city lawyers was made more than 15 years ago by then-Mayor Jane Campbell’s law director, Subodh Chandra. (Chandra later represented the Teamsters in its fight with the city to allow the city lawyers to organize.)

The memo also complains about the tax dollars the city spends on outside law firms, an issue that has been questioned during many administrations. The memo accuses Langhenry of abusing the city ordinance that allows her to hire law firms without City Council approval.

The memo lists each contract and law firm by name and says contracts call for hourly rates of $300 to $500. It goes on to state that the city spent $1.9 million on outside legal help in 2017, and spent $1.7 million through September 2018. The memo said that 2018’s costs were projected to equal nearly 40 percent of the staff’s wages.

“If our city chose to invest even some of those funds into our lawyers instead of funneling them to outside law firms, not only could our lawyers’ wages be brought up to market level, but our city could be more competitive in recruiting highly qualified lawyer to present its interest instead of relying on the bottom of the barrel,” the memo reads.

Langhenry disputed these points and took particular exception to the charge she’s abusing her powers.

“The assertion that I indiscriminately engage outside counsel to handle legal matters that lawyers in the department could handle is wrong and does not match reality,” she said. “As the person making the decision, I take my obligations seriously and act within the authority given to me by the Council to carefully consider the hiring of outside counsel. “

She added that with few exceptions, the city pays less than $300 per hour for its outside counsel.

“The assertion that the City pays between $300 and $500 per hour is just wrong,” she said. (You can read Langhenry’s full response to my questions below this post.)

The city lawyers typically get little attention and taxpayers likely have no idea what they do to help keep the city running. They are responsible for providing legal advice to the mayor, department heads, City Council and all city commissions. They handle litigation involving civil rights and police misconduct claims, negligence claims, contract disputes and First-Amendment matters. They also draft legislation and act as counsel to the city-owned utilities and the airport.

The city uses numerous outside lawyers and firms, particularly to handle collective-bargaining issues with city unions.

But it’s hard not to wonder if the city could do more with in-house lawyers with more expertise. Of course, the city would have to boost Law Department salaries to attract and keep such lawyers. Here’s an example that underscores this point. The city still relies on the expertise of its former chief assistant law director, Joseph Scott, who left the city in 2016 to head his own firm, which now gets contracts from the city.

Langhenry disputed that turnover is a problem, though she acknowledged two dozen lawyers – or about one third of the department’s 70 lawyers - have left since the beginning of 2016.

She said that many city lawyers spend a good portion of their career in the department, noting that 31 lawyers have been in the department for almost a dozen years. Twelve have been there for 20 years, she said.

She said those who have left did so for a variety of reasons, including retirement. She said eight left in 2016, 12 left in 2017 and six left in 2018. (She cites the specific reason for the departure of some lawyers in her response below.)

She said the administration’s latest proposed budget includes money to add two city prosecutors and one assistant law director.

She said nothing about raising the department’s pay scale.

But by most measures, the pay for city lawyers is abysmal. At minimum, council members should be skeptical of Langhenry’s rosy assessment.

And they should be asking if the city is really getting the best and brightest.

Council and taxpayers shouldn’t have to settle for anything less.

Letter to Cleveland City Council (PDF) Letter to Cleveland City Council (Text)

Here is the full statement from Cleveland Law Director Barbara Langhenry:

“Any lawyer who compromises their legal work because they are dissatisfied with their salary should not be a lawyer. The obligation of lawyers to zealously represent their clients’ interests within the bounds of the law does not contain an exception for when a lawyer believes that his or her salary is too low.

As a lawyer who has had the privilege of a career largely in public service, I am disappointed that any lawyer serving the City deems it acceptable to continue in public service without putting forth the required dedication and effort.

The salary is known to lawyers when they join the City. With the exception of one year in the recent past, the City’s lawyers have received the same percentage compensation increase as the City’s other employees. In that one year, when the City was suffering from fiscal constraints, only members of collective bargaining units received an increase.

The suggestion that low salaries mean that the City’s lawyers are the “bottom of the barrel” and provide “lackluster and disgruntled” representation is an insult to the hard-working and well-qualified lawyers who excellently represent the City’s interests on a daily basis. The City is fortunate to have a large number of dedicated and skilled lawyers.

The assertion that I indiscriminately engage outside counsel to handle legal matters that lawyers in the department could handle is wrong and does not match reality. As the person making the decision, I take my obligations seriously and act within the authority given to me by the Council to carefully consider the hiring of outside counsel.

Generally, the City employs outside counsel for workers compensation administrative matters, for specialized legal matters (e.g. intellectual property issues), for collections, for labor negotiations, when a conflict of interest exists, and when a legal matter requires a large dedication of legal resources beyond the capacity of the City’s Law Department.

With few exceptions, the City pays less than $300 per hour for its outside counsel. The assertion that the City pays between $300 and $500 per hour is just wrong.

Collections work and the workers compensation administrative work rely on a team of lawyers and administrative professionals to process that work. Providing those services in the Law Department involves more than hiring a couple of extra lawyers.

The Law Department engages in a competitive process for the workers compensation administrative matters, the collection work, and most of the large matters. The City has used the same labor counsel for well over 15 years. When the department cannot represent all defendants in a lawsuit because of a conflict of interest, I engage law firms with demonstrated skill in the particular subject matter.

Annually at the budget hearings, the City Council questions me about outside counsel contracts in an effort to evaluate the budget allocation for these services. Outside of budget hearings, any Councilmember who has asked has been provided information about outside counsel contracts.

I believe that the City has an adequate number of lawyers to handle its legal work. I am pleased that the 2019 proposed budget adds three new lawyer positions – two prosecutors and one assistant director of law.

Many lawyers spend their careers in City Hall. Currently, there are 70 lawyers in the Law Department. Thirty one lawyers have been with the department for almost a dozen years or more, with twelve who have served 20 or more years. Over the past three years lawyers have left the department for various reasons, including by mutual agreement.

In 2016, eight lawyers left the department, with one of those retiring, one transferring to another City department, and one returning to the department within nine months of leaving. In 2017, twelve lawyers left the department and one died. One of those lawyers transferred to another department and one retired. In 2018, six lawyers left the department. One of those retired, one left to run for judge, and one left to care for her newborn baby.”