Indigent criminal defendants will be the ones who ultimately benefit from the first-ever New York State Public Defenders Career Fair, held Oct. 19 at UB’s Center for Tomorrow. The School of Law hosted the event, which brought together more than 110 potential applicants and 30 agencies from across the state, including public defender offices, legal aid societies, conflict defenders, and assigned counsel programs.
These agencies are embarking on an unprecedented hiring spree, the result of a recently settled activist lawsuit that has forced changes in how New York provides legally mandated defense. Seeking to increase the quality of representation and provide better resources to public defenders’ offices, many of which are short-staffed and deal with heavy caseloads, the state has allocated up to $250 million over five years to hire additional lawyers to do this work.
That means job opportunities for new law school graduates as well as practicing attorneys looking to make a career change or take a supervisory or training role in these offices.
“Many students would love to be public defenders, and there hasn’t been the funding to hire that many public defenders all at once in history,” says Lisa M. Patterson, the School of Law’s vice dean for career services. “There’s always, always, always going to be a huge percentage of students who want to do criminal law generally and criminal defense. This was a tremendous opportunity for them to see all that opportunity in one room at one time.”
The job fair drew attendees from around the state and even nationwide. And, says Joanne Macri, director of regional initiatives for New York’s Office of Indigent Legal Services, it gave low-profile legal services providers the chance to showcase their work and their regions.
“We wanted to make this a statewide effort, rather than each individual county doing their recruiting,” says Macri (who has a UB School of Law connection as a former immigration law instructor). “A lot of these counties are in rural locations, and people may not be aware of these opportunities. New York State is one of those places where, wherever you work, there’s the opportunity for not just a good work life but a good life,” whether that’s big-city bustle or the natural beauty of the Adirondacks or the Finger Lakes.
One employer close to home was the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, which has five openings starting Jan. 1 and will hire a total of 25 entry-level attorneys over four years, more than doubling its current attorney staff.
David Schopp ’82 is CEO of the organization, which serves the City of Buffalo and is one of the largest providers of indigent legal defense in the state. “We talked to 60 or 70 students and recent graduates about positions we’d like to have filled,” he says, as well as first- and second-year students interested in paid summer internships with Legal Aid – another innovation under the new state funding.
“Clearly public defense is something that a lot of law students are very much interested in,” Schopp says. “We talked to a lot of people from UB School of Law, and from other law schools, too, from across the country, including California and some of the Ivy League law schools.”
That’s good news for job-seekers, but the goal, of course, is to provide the best possible defense for indigent criminal defendants. “There will be an improvement in the services we’re able to provide,” Schopp says. “I anticipate we’ll have much more time to research, to investigate cases, to file motions.”
In addition, he says, “we’re always trying to improve the diversity of our staff, and it was really a very diverse group who attended. It was amazingly successful.”