State may cover debt from law school
Bill to help lawyers who represent poor defendants from rural, small counties
The state would pay off law school loans — up to $20,000 a year — for lawyers who agree to represent poor defendants in rural counties, under a proposed bill.
Backers think the $500,000, twoyear pilot program would offer enough incentive for new lawyers to move to Wisconsin’s small counties, or coax lawyers already practicing in those areas to start accepting the cases.
“Judges are making us very aware, this is an issue,” State Public Defender Kelli Thompson said. “It’s kind of all hands on deck.”
She said it sometimes has taken 100 phone calls to find a lawyer for an indigent defendant, and some of those lawyers are traveling three and four, sometimes up to five hours to see those clients.
“It’s a struggle,” Thompson said. The loan repayment offer amounts to a small side-step around the real problem: Wisconsin’s lowest-in-the-nation payments to private attorneys who take on cases the State Public Defender Office can’t.
That $40 an hour rate hasn’t risen since 1992, and experienced lawyers say it doesn’t even cover their overhead costs. As a result, many decline the cases or only take one or two a year out of a sense of professional duty.
Repeated efforts by the State Bar of Wisconsin and the State Public Defenders Office to get the Supreme Court or the Legislature to raise the rate have failed.
For a qualifying lawyer with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt, the relief would effectively raise that $40, but the question is whether it would be enough to draw lawyers to places like Hurley, Rhinelander or Crandon.
Daniel Berkos chairs the State Public Defender board and is the only lawyer in Juneau County who takes appointments. Most come from Madison, La Crosse or Baraboo, he said.
“People in their 20s and 30s generally aren’t interested in moving to rural areas,” he said. “We need to appoint lawyers already there.”
But if they’ve long paid off their loans, they wouldn’t qualify for the new incentive.
Tyler Wickman runs a small general
law practice in Ashland. He said when he started out, he took appointments, but now doesn’t take any because he’d lose money.
But he sees the problem created by lack of counsel.
“It creates a much a larger burden on the system than people realize,” he said. “It spirals and costs more in law enforcement prosecution, court time and jails.”
Many of the criminal cases Up North involve methamphetamine and opioid use, he said. A lawyer can help a defendant find and get treatment, hound them about making court dates, and do other steps toward an efficient, just resolution.
“That’s all a lot harder if the lawyer is from 100 miles away,” and not seeing the client within the first day or two of their arrest.
Wickman said in one extreme case, a judge agreed to have the county pay him $100 an hour to represent someone who had spent more than 500 days in pre-trial detention.
The bill would require qualifying lawyers to either maintain their office in a county with fewer than 25,000 residents or show that the majority of their legal work is done in such counties. Twenty-six Wisconsin counties meet the criteria.
The State Public Defender, based in Madison with 36 local offices, handles most indigent criminal defense cases but must farm out conflicts and overflows. It spends more than $2 million a month paying private attorneys — who must be certified by the SPD — to take on about 57,000 such cases a year.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), runs his own general law practice based in Appleton. He said he took lots of Public Defender appointments when he started out, to get experience and pay the bills, but hasn’t taken any in three years.
“I have every expectation it will pass the Assembly this session,” he said. “I don’t see why wouldn’t. It’s financially better for the state, helps folks stay in rural areas and it’s more efficient.”
Co-sponsor Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) is not a lawyer but said he hears a lot about law school debt.
“The vast majority (of new lawyers) think the only way to make enough to pay off debt is to work” in Milwaukee, Madison or Green Bay.
“That’s been the biggest struggle in rural areas — massive out-migration for 50 years,” Testin said. “Our areas have a lot to offer — great places to live, work and raise families. We just need people to come and try it.”
Bayfield County Circuit Judge John Anderson isn’t sure loan payoffs is the answer but is “happy the Legislature is at least talking something” related to the problem.
“I’m not aware of any civil rights claims yet, but am concerned we’re getting close to that with a few cases,” because, he stressed, a defendant’s right to counsel “doesn’t go away just because there aren’t enough lawyers.”
“Our areas have a lot to offer — great places to live, work and raise families.” Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point)