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A Good Article Regarding Lawyer Fees from “Above the Law”

I have in my office a framed print of the classic New Yorker cartoon: “You have a pretty good case, Mr. Pitkin. How much justice can you afford?” I often find myself referring to the cartoon when talking to prospective clients.

For one thing, the joke is a light-hearted way to broach the subject of fees. This can be a difficult or awkward subject, yet it is critical that prospective clients understand the fees involved in a representation. Whether you are handling a matter on a contingent fee, a flat rate or hourly basis, or otherwise, clients need to know that nothing comes for free. If you can’t have a frank and detailed discussion about your fees and expenses, you inevitably will have trouble collecting. For lawyers who are opening a new solo or small firm practice, understanding the perils of working for free is one of the hardest but most important lessons to learn.

Tom Wallerstein

The joke also is helpful because many clients appreciate a lawyer who is self-deprecating and doesn’t take himself too seriously. I have found that acknowledging the negative stereotype of lawyers, and why the stereotypes justifiably exist, is helpful to gaining a client’s trust. Rather than tiptoe around the elephant in the room, I prefer to expressly acknowledge the profit incentive I have whenever I recommend a certain course of action. I like to think that gives me more credibility. “Yes, I am recommending a strategy that is going to cost a lot of money in legal fees over the next several months. Here’s why I believe that strategy is in your best interest….”

Although most sophisticated clients know better, others can’t help but distrust all lawyers as greedy con-artists. A lawyer who recognizes and appreciates this stereotype is better positioned to allay client fears by confronting them directly. Clients understandably worry that they’re going to get ripped off. I acknowledge that and explain to clients what steps they can take to ensure they don’t get overbilled by me or any other lawyer. Those steps only go so far, however, and ultimately the client has to trust the lawyer in what I call the “look you in the eye” moment, or moment of truth.

The joke’s phrase “how much justice” also invites a discussion about how justice is relative. Every litigation client wants to win, but they don’t always immediately understand that winning is relative. I find it helpful to talk to the client about what winning really looks like in the matter at hand. For a civil defendant, winning might mean a dismissal of the complaint with prejudice. Winning might mean a reasonable settlement. Winning might even mean a judgment for plaintiff, but for less than a certain amount or upon certain acceptable conditions. Winning might mean deferring resolution for a certain amount of time.

Finally, the joke is helpful in leading a discussion about how there often is more than one viable strategy for handling any given matter. The serious point of “how much justice can you afford” is that different strategies, and desired outcomes, require different budgets. The joke is funny because it obscures the relative nature of “justice.” In reality, it is appropriate to ask “how much do you want to spend” when considering the strategy and result you want to try to obtain.

Even obtaining the best case result — for example, a dismissal with prejudice — entails a cost in terms of time, energy and fees. Maybe you collect or maybe you pay. But since it costs a lot to win, and even more to lose, clients need to carefully consider their strategic options by carefully weighing their choices. We chuckle, but I find it helpful to ask, “how much justice can you afford?” Clients seem to appreciate it when I acknowledge that it might not make sense to win the case at a cost that exceeded the prospective liability. In other words, “we can win, but it would cost you more than it would cost you to settle.” Clients generally don’t like hearing that, but they do appreciate the candor.

I’ve explained before that I try

to work closely with our clients to understand their goals, their tolerance of risk, and their budget constraints. We urge our clients at all times to consider their exposure, risk of loss, and attorney fees they will incur to achieve their goals. Our case assessments necessarily consider these factors, as do our strategic recommendations.

Sometimes clients will respond to that by pushing back and insisting that they want to win “at any cost.” “Tell me the cost, I can pay,” they proclaim. To that, I usually joke “music to my ears!” Again, I hope that acknowledging my own economic interest helps build trust.

Rather than leaving no stone unturned and pursuing an undefined victory at any cost, client-centric firms can instead recognize that justice is relative, and always comes at a price. They can contrast their approach with a sometimes predictable Biglaw litigation model. Too often, firms follow a rather consistent litigation playbook. They insist that the first step in every case is always to gather and review every conceivably relevant document, often with a team of junior attorneys. They insist on propounding kitchen-sink discovery, obtaining and reviewing every conceivably relevant document from the adversary, again billing every step of the way.

Admittedly, especially in high stakes cases, this may well be the right approach. But not always. More creative firms and boutiques sometimes have more flexibility in designing litigation strategy. I’ve written before how they can sometimes capitalize on this by exploiting their adversary’s predictable litigation formula.

Attorney jokes will never go away, thankfully. As a profession, we certainly deserve them. But attorneys who are willing to view the world through the eyes of their clients can gain trust simply by asking, “how much justice can you afford?”

http://abovethelaw.com/2013/07/how-much-justice-can-you-afford/

Remembering Why Lawyers Enjoy Being Lawyers

Yesterday I went and spent a few hours manning the “Attorney for the Day” desk at the local courthouse.  It is a program through the Birmingham Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Program.  FYI If you are an attorney it is good program to volunteer for.

Things that struck me as I listen to people talk about their legal issues and court cases.  First that I enjoy I can use my knowledge and experience to help people and Second, that I kept wondering that some of the people who say they cannot afford to hire an attorney, when in reality the question is “How can they not afford to hire an attorney?”

There were two case that stuck out.  Each involved substantial amounts of money.  In one a small businessman was trying to collect a substantial debt he was owed.  He said that he could not afford to hire an attorney and that was why he had filed the case Pro Se.  I pointed out that if he lost the case then he would not be able to recover any of the money he was owed.  If he hired a collections attorney the attorney would take a percentage of the money, but that he would have a better chance in court than being Pro Se and that the attorney would help him actually collect the money once he had a judgment.  I believe that he will go get an attorney to help him with this case and future cases he would have.

The Second case was a gentleman who had been trying to collect on a judgment for several years.  I looked over his paperwork and it was clear that an experienced attorney would have collected the judgment within 6 months of the judgment or determined that there was no assets to recover from.

As attorneys we have to educate people on the importance of having an attorney when going into court and that the benefits usually out weigh the cost.

The Second thing that struck me was that I enjoy helping people.  Many of the problems that were presented to me during that time had simple answers that I could provide.  To see people relief on having a solution to their problem or being provided with a pathway to the solution of the problem reminds me why I became a lawyer.  To help people, to try to provide them with a solution.

It is good to be reminded why we became lawyers.

Chief Justice Roy Moore warns more employees could lose jobs unless courts receive more funding

By Ed Enoch | eenoch@al.com 
March 18, 2013 at 5:57 PM

MONTGOMERY, Alabama – The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court predicts the state judicial system could be forced to lay off as many as 300 employees unless it receives approximately $13.5 million more in funding during fiscal year 2014.”Unless we get some help, we are going to get hurt, and I’m afraid it is going to affect the public,” Chief Justice Roy Moore said during comments to the Montgomery Rotary Club on Monday.

Currently, the judicial system is expected to get approximately $103.4 million based on a general fund budget proposal passed by the Alabama Senate last week. The budget proposal has been sent to the House.

“We are not asking for anything extra next year,” said Administrative Director of Courts Rich Hobson, who attended the rotary lunch with Moore. “Just enough to keep the doors open.”

Moore said the 300 would join 498 court jobs lost since 2001.

“This is not a new problem, but it has just gotten worse,” Moore said.Moore said the state judiciary was underfunded during his first term as chief justice in 2001 but was in worse condition now, adding courts were operating with approximately $38 million less 12 years later.

More argued the state should consider more equitable cuts among the branches of government, saying the judiciary had taken the most severe cuts so far.

Moore said he was opposed to further increases to court fees or taxes to offset the losses, adding money in the budget should be reprioritized.

“We have got to take some priority to some things that they are giving money to,” Moore said.

As an example of the problems facing courts statewide, Moore read letters from circuit court clerks in Montgomery, Shelby and Jefferson counties who said their offices were undermanned and their remaining staff overworked.

“I could go on,” Moore said. “We have got tons of these from our different circuit clerks.”

Moore noted clerks across the state help collect revenue for the state and local governments. He said further cuts to staff could affect collections.

The judiciary would continue to do what is necessary to keep courts open, Moore said.

“We will do what we have to do,” Moore said.

Fielding a question from the audience, Moore said he believed the state should enforce gambling laws statewide, whether at Indian-owned casinos or facilities such as VictoryLand.

“The solution is to enforce the law fairly across the state,” Moore said, calling it a matter of equality.

Moore acknowledged gambling has been an ongoing debate in the state and any discussion of Indian casinos must consider federal law. Moore said he supported attempts by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to enforce state laws.

“He is doing right by starting and bringing up the subject,” Moore said.

Reporter Mike Cason contributed to this report.

Chief Justice Roy Moore warns more employees could lose jobs unless courts receive more funding

Odd twist in a case or good investigation by lawyer team?

Detective in Pistorius Case Faces Prior Charges

By  and 

Published: February 21, 2013

PRETORIA, South Africa — In a remarkable twist in the case of Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee track star accused of murdering his girlfriend, the South African police said on Thursday that the officer leading the investigation against the athlete is himself facing seven criminal charges of attempted murder.

Under cross-examination on Wednesday, the detective was forced to concede that he could not rule out Mr. Pistorius’s own version of events based on the existing evidence, apparently undermining the prosecution’s account.

“The poor quality of evidence presented by chief investigating officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings in the state’s case,” said defense lawyer Barry Roux.

When the bail hearing resumed on Thursday — Mr. Pistorius’s fourth court appearance since the killing on Feb. 14 — the chief prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, began by acknowledging the charges against Mr. Botha, but said prosecutors did not know the case had been reinstated by the time Mr. Botha testified against Mr. Pistorius on Wednesday.

Mr. Botha was not present when the Pistorius bail hearings resumed Thursday, and the court briefly adjourned while officers went to find him.

While the prosecution has accused Mr. Pistorius, 26, of the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 29, a week ago, the track star himself said he opened fire thinking there was an intruder in his home in a gated community and had no intention of killing her.

The case has continued to take a toll on his global reputation as an emblem of athletic prowess and of triumph over adversity. On Thursday, the Nike company became the latest corporate sponsor to suspend ties with him. “We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely,” the company said in astatement on its Web site.

In Pretoria, in a development that seemed as bewildering as it was sensational on Thursday, Police Brig. Neville Malila said that Mr. Botha is himself set to appear in court in May facing attempted murder charges relating to an incident in October 2011, when Mr. Botha and two other police officers were accused of firing at a minivan carrying seven people.

“Botha and two other policemen allegedly tried to stop a minibus taxi with seven people. They fired shots,” Brigadier Malila said.

While the charges were initially dropped, “we were informed yesterday that the charges will be reinstated,” he said. “At this stage, there are no plans to take him off the Pistorius case.”

South African news reports said the 2011 shooting happened when the officers were pursuing a man accused of murdering and dismembering a woman before putting the body parts into a drain.

Medupe Simasiku, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said “the decision to reinstate was taken on Feb. 4, way before the issue of Pistorius” or the shooting death of Ms. Steenkamp “came to light.”

“It’s completely unrelated to this trial,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Botha was quoted in South African news reports as denying claims that he was drunk during the alleged shooting. He said he and other officers had aimed at the wheels of the minivan without causing injuries and he was convinced that the case had been withdrawn.

Calling the timing “totally weird,” Bulewa Makeke, a spokeswoman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said Mr. Botha should be replaced but the final decision lay with the police, not the prosecutors.

“Is he going to be dropped from the case? I don’t know. I think the right thing would be for him to be dropped,” Ms. Makeke said outside Pretoria Magistrate’s Court.

Mr. Pistorius returned to court on Thursday for further arguments about whether he should be granted bail in a case that has riveted South Africa and fascinated a wider audience, reflecting Mr. Pistorius’s status as one of the world’s most renowned athletes, whose distinctive carbon-fiber running blades inspired the nickname Blade Runner.

On Wednesday, what was supposed to be a simple bail hearing took on the proportions of a full-blown trial, with sharp questions from the presiding magistrate, Desmond Nair, and a withering cross-examination that left Detective Botha grasping for answers that did not contradict his earlier testimony.

Initially, Detective Botha explained how preliminary ballistic evidence supported the prosecution’s assertion that Mr. Pistorius had been wearing prosthetic legs when he shot at a locked bathroom door early on Feb. 14. Ms. Steenkamp, a model and law school graduate, was hiding behind it at the time.

Mr. Pistorius said in an affidavit read to the court on Tuesday that he had hobbled over from his bed on his stumps and had felt extremely vulnerable to a possible intruder as a result.

But when questioned by Mr. Roux, Mr. Pistorius’s lawyer, Detective Botha was forced to acknowledge sloppy police work, and he eventually conceded that he could not rule out Mr. Pistorius’s version of events based on the existing evidence. Mr. Roux accused the prosecution of selectively taking “every piece of evidence” and trying “to extract the most possibly negative connotation and present it to the court.”

Lydia Polgreen reported from Pretoria, South Africa, and Alan Cowell from London.

Prosecutors Gone Wild: The Case of Kevin Ring

In the movie Malice, Jack Donaghy is asked during a deposition (by Sandy Cohen) if he has a “God Complex” and delivers a classic meltdown explaining, “I *AM* God.”

There’s a legal equivalent to Baldwin’s doctor, and it’s not a judge or even a senior partner. For the biggest “God Complexes” (“God Complii?”) look to your friendly, neighborhood prosecutors. Imbued with extraordinary power through the charging process and the investigatory resources of the government, prosecutors can get used to getting their way and indifferent to the plight of defendants, witnesses, and counsel. And nothing can raise their ire more than someone unwilling to cooperate. “How dare they defy me?”

Take the case of Kevin Ring, a Jack Abramoff acolyte sentenced to almost two years of prison time, whose conviction was just upheld by the D.C. Circuit (opinion available here). I’m not a huge fan of lobbyists, but the transgressions proved at Ring’s trial look way too small to justify his sentence.

Instead, it looks like his primary crime was not cooperating with the almighty government….

Cooperation should be cause for reward. Non-cooperation should not incite punishment. The difference is thin, but significant. And the details of the Kevin Ring case certainly read as though prosecutors decided to make an example out of him for not cooperating.

In Ring’s case, after securing modest sentences for cooperating lobbyists with more egregious conduct (including Abramoff himself), the government sought a 20-year prison term for the non-cooperating Ring. Take a second to ponder that… the government wanted to put Ring away for three to four times longer than the actual ringleader of the whole affair! There’s “rewarding cooperation,” and then there’s whatever the government was doing here.

To test if this is just withholding a reward or exacting punishment, what did Ring do to deserve a 20-year prison term in the eyes of the government? Walter Pavlo, take it away:

If there is bribery of any government official, I want to see evidence of big money in an envelope being passed from overcoat to overcoat in a dark corner of a bar. In other words, bribery should be a blatant act of money being used to influence someone in office and not some conspiracy theory that an expensive dinner and watching football from box seats was overly influential. Such is the case of Kevin Ring. No cash in a bag, no strip clubs, no private jets … but there were Washington Redskin games, a few dinners and Disney on Ice tickets to government officials.

In the pre-RGIII era, handing out Washington Redskins tickets should not be considered “something of value.” And to quote Walter Pavlo again, “[y]ou can only be considered so much of a real bad-ass in the world of lobbying when you’re handing out tickets to Disney on Ice in return for political favors….”

And most importantly, I find it insulting that public integrity could be bought by Disney on Ice. I demand a higher class of graft-taking politician!

So the prosecutors asked for 20 years, the defense asked for probation, and Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle split the difference with the two-year prison term (after telling the prosecutors she wouldn’t even entertain anything over 50 months). But the prosecutors set the parameters of the judge’s decision and even seeking four-plus years for a couple of tickets and a dinner or two without a specific quid pro quo feels like a tremendous misuse of judicial resources solely to make an example out of a non-cooperator. Even if the statute and guidelines allow the prosecutor to ask for 20 years, prosecutors exercise discretion in shaping charges every day in the interest of justice and could have easily done so here.

Now, Kevin Ring will likely file a writ of certiorari, hoping to get his conviction overturned. He has some legitimate arguments about the D.C. Circuit’s interpretation of the bribery statutes, but unfortunately, even if they hear the case, the Court will not have the opportunity to rule on checking prosecutorial power. And that seems to be the real problem here.

More tragically, there won’t be enough Senators in the audience to bring Tinkerbell back to life with their applause.

A Lobbyist’s Appeal For Common Sense — The Case of Kevin Ring [Forbes]

Locked doors, safety training and remote car starters go a long way to protect lawyers, expert says

LAW PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

Posted Feb 13, 2013 8:57 AM CST

After this week’s courthouse shootings in Delaware as well as other recent high-profile slayings including the execution-style killing of a Texas prosecutor and an opponent’s fatal attack on a lawyer and clientleaving a mediation session in Arizona, many are wondering what can be done to stop such violence.

The jury is still out on whether attacks in a legal setting are on the upswing. The executive director of the state bar of Arizona, John F. Phelps, says in an opinion piece published by the Arizona Republic that a survey done by a Utah lawyer suggests there has been an increase. And, following the death of lawyer Mark Hummels, who was killed last month by an opposing party in a Phoenix mediation matter, the president of the State Bar of Arizona plans to ask its 22,000 members whether they have been threatened or attacked.

Anthony C. Roman, who heads a New York firm that does investigative work for corporations and insurance companies, tells the ABA Journal he believes there is simply more publicity about such attacks than there used to be.

Regardless of who’s right, however, there can be no disagreement that any level of violence against attorneys and others involved in the legal system is unacceptable. There’s also little, if any question, about who’s most likely to be targeted: Criminal defense lawyers, family law attorneys, litigators and others involved in dispute resolutions in which individuals’ emotions may run high.

Roman says his firm is regularly called upon to offer safety advice to attorneys and law firms, as well as other businesses, and he had a number of suggestions about best practices that should be implemented. However, privacy advocates may quail at some of his ideas.

First, he says, lawyers involved in any kind of trial or dispute resolution practice need to understand that they—and potentially their families—are in a special-risk category of potential targets for harassment or worse.

Second, it’s important to be aware of one’s surroundings and alert to signs and symptoms of agitation, so they can be dealt with before they escalate. Many people do these things instinctively, but training can help individuals act optimally.

Safety measures for law firms, like courthouses, include secure doors that are not open to the public unless and until individuals are OK’d by reception personnel, Roman says. Once buzzed in, visitors should always be escorted and should wear a color-coded badge, and law office workers at all levels should be trained to politely question anyone who is not wearing a visitor’s badge.

Optimally, both courthouses and law firms would have perimeter cameras equipped with smart technology that allows them to recognize license plates and faces.

In addition to identifying specific individuals who are thought to pose a threat to the facility in question, smart technology also allows cameras to check visitors against databases. These can include not only known violent offenders and terrorists but white-collar offenders such as money-launderers, Roman says, pointing out that law firms need to know their clients and can be at risk if they don’t.

In the office and at outside meetings, particularly when adverse parties are present, efforts should be made to recognize and defuse situations in which anyone seems to be getting agitated, and there should be a plan for handling such issues. Taking a break, or perhaps even recessing until a future date, can make a big difference. If need be, unarmed or armed security can be arranged for the next meeting.

“Those very simple things can go a very long way in avoiding many of the casualties and injuries we see against attorneys,” Roman says.

He recommends background investigations of parties before negotiations begin as an excellent way to identify whether there could be a safety issue, based on a previous history of problem behavior.

Signs that an employee is severely stressed or, say, making threatening remarks also should be addressed. “Those kind of things are often ignored and pooh-poohed,” Roman says. “They shouldn’t be.”

Dealt with early on, such situations can much more easily be defused, he says, when a problem is “in its very early stages and hasn’t escalated emotionally.”

Outside the office, lawyers should have remote starters for their vehicles, he continues, and quality security systems in their homes that alert when someone crosses the perimeter of the property, accesses a door, a window or the basement, or breaks a window. Systems that transmit to a cell tower are more secure than those that use only a land line, since a land line can be cut to prevent an alarm from being sent.

Not only adult family members but children can be trained in a matter-of-fact way to be alert to their surroundings, know their location at all times and have a cellphone immediately at hand. That also goes for their nannies or any other caregivers, and schools should be advised to take care, too.

With his own children, such awareness “just became a part of their life,” Roman said. “They were never particularly afraid, they were just informed.”

No savings yet from Alabama’s reform of its indigent defense payment system

Feb 09, 2013 | 1376 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print

MONTGOMERY— The cost of providing legal defense for impoverished criminal defendants is expected to rise significantly in 2013, despite the creation of a statewide office to rein in costs.

Alabama is on track to pay $75.6 million on indigent defense in the 2013 fiscal year, state budget documents indicate. That’s compared to $59.6 million in fiscal 2012, which ended Sept. 30, and $61.2 million in 2011.

The boost comes despite the creation in 2011 of a state Office of Indigent Defense Services to monitor how much the state spends on providing representation for people too poor to afford a lawyer. But supporters of that reform say the new system is just clearing out the deadwood and setting the stage for savings.

“Once we finish closing out contracts with lawyers under the old system, this should clear up,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who sponsored the law that created the new office. “You should finally start seeing some savings.”

But some are not yet convinced that changing the system was a good idea — saying that savings, when they come, will come by hiring lawyers on the cheap.

A basic right

If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.

It’s a phrase almost everyone has heard on television cop shows, and it’s something Americans have long expected of the court system. And rightly so, lawyers and judges say.

“Protecting my right to a fair trial is protecting your right, too,” said Calhoun County Circuit Judge Bud Turner. “It’s the most basic right there is.”

It’s also a right with a long, painful legal history. In 1932, when an Alabama court convicted nine innocent black men of rape in Scottsboro, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants have to be provided an adequate defense in capital cases. Rape was a capital crime in Alabama at the time.

Three decades later, a Florida inmate, Clarence Earl Gideon, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his larceny conviction because he hadn’t been provided legal counsel. The ensuing case, Gideon v. Wainright, established that every defendant has the right to a lawyer, whether they can afford it or not.

Whether Alabama has lived up to the promise of providing adequate counsel is still a matter of debate. When lawmakers held a press conference Monday to announce an effort to exonerate the Scottsboro Boys, lawyers at the event noted that if the state doesn’t do a better job of providing counsel, an event like the 1930s Scottsboro rape trial could easily happen again.

“We still have loopholes, we still have racial discrimination in jury selection, and we still have problems providing effective assistance of counsel,” said Richard Jaffe, a Birmingham lawyer, at the Monday event.

It’s not just criminal defendants who get representation from the state’s indigent defense system. The state also pays for guardians ad litem— lawyers who represent kids who need a representative in custody cases, or older people, low on funds, who are facing commitment hearings.

Lawyers have never given Alabama good marks on its ability or willingness to provide defendants a legal defense. But about 10 years ago, the state started spending more — a lot more — on defense lawyers for the poor. Alabama paid $30 million for indigent defense in 2005, and twice as much in 2012.

It wasn’t by design. In 2006, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the state had to pay lawyers for overhead costs, such as maintaining an office. An American Bar Association study, conducted a few years later, cited that ruling as the reason for the surge.

‘Not a good way to do justice’

It didn’t help that the state lacked a central office to coordinate the state’s indigent defense lawyers, something many other states had. Across the state’s 41 judicial circuits, there’s a hodgepodge of systems. Some counties have public defenders, hired full-time to do criminal defense. Others let judges appoint lawyers on a case-by-case basis. Still others hire defense attorneys on contract often assigning a defender to a single courtroom and requiring them to take all the indigent cases that come to that courtroom.

In 2011 the Legislature finally set up a central state agency — the Office of Indigent Defense Services, or OIDS — to bring order to the chaos. The office set up a statewide, online system for lawyers to file requests for payment and it began reviewing those requests from Montgomery.

A central agency for public defense was something that legal and anti-poverty groups had been advocating for years. But the passage of a bill creating OIDS in 2011, a slim budget year, had some worried that the state would push all districts toward the contract system.

“That’s just not a good way to do justice,” said John Pickens, of the anti-poverty group Alabama Appleseed. He said studies by Appleseed and other groups found that lawyers in a contract system tend to become overloaded with cases.

“The level of representation is not as good, and the zeal of representation was not as good,” he said. Those are problems that can emerge with other systems, he said, but not as often as in contract arrangements.

Pickens said the general consensus among “anybody who cares about indigent defense” is that the public defender system provides the best service.

Open-ended

So far, the new system has fostered more of both public defender and contract systems, while chipping away at the number of appointment systems.

According to figures provided by the OIDS, 26 of the state’s 41 circuit courts have contract systems, and six have public defenders’ offices. The rest use the appointment system.

The number of contract systems grew by just one, Lauderdale County, though three other counties expanded existing contract systems. Two counties adopted the public defender approach.

One of those was Jefferson County, the state’s largest circuit, which made the switch from an appointed system to a public defender system. According to The Birmingham News, state officials expected the cost of Jefferson County’s $12.5 million system to drop by about $3.5 million.

Ward, the senator who helped create the OIDS, said the goal was always to shift courts toward the public defender model. Ward said he prefers the public defender approach, and he claims it’s actually cheaper than the contract model. The Star requested estimates from OIDS to show whether public defender or contract models were cheaper, but those numbers weren’t available by Friday.

But in the short term, the change hasn’t been cheap at all — yet. Assistant state Finance Director Clinton Carter said the $15 million increase expected in 2013 is actually the result of the state eliminating payments for overhead costs, and warning lawyers that the change was coming. Lawyers rushed in to file any outstanding requests for payment before the deadline, Carter said.

“We knew this would come out of the woodwork,” Carter said.

Those payments actually came out of the woodwork in the 2012 fiscal year, not this year, Carter said. It was a tight budget year, with the state ultimately raiding a state trust fund for $437 million to make ends meet. The state simply couldn’t afford to pay all the lawyers. So it didn’t — holding off payment until this budget year.

Carter said things really should be better in 2014. Per-case costs, he said, are already down.

The state Department of Finance projects that the cost of the system will drop again, to $58.7 million in 2014, once the old contracts are worked out.

Still, it’s a projection, noted Finance Director Marquita Davis. The actual numbers for 2014 could be higher — or lower.

“It’s what we consider an open-ended appropriation,” she said. “We don’t decide how many people get arrested, but we pay for their defense.”

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter@TLockette_Star.

Read more:Anniston Star – No savings yet from Alabama s reform of its indigent defense payment system