In 2022, there are not enough lawyers in at least one Springfield office.
“The legal market is good right now and the law schools are not producing enough lawyers, which I never thought I would say in the past,” Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson said.
Labor shortages aren’t just happening in Springfield’s warehouses, manufacturing sites, restaurants and stores. They are happening in workplaces where advanced degrees and certifications are required–like law practices. It’s especially prevalent in the public sector.
“It’s not just our industry that is affected by staffing shortages. We also have shortages in support staff as well. It causes us to look for other ways to do more with less,” Patterson said.
The prosecuting attorney and his staff are trying to avoid delays in cases. In 2020, the public safety concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays in the court system and resulted in a decline in the number of jury trials taking place. Two years later, Patterson said the number of trials is ramping back up, creating extra pressure to try to keep cases moving.
“In addition to the typical lag of the criminal justice system, we have the additional COVID lag that we’re dealing with,” Patterson said.
The Greene County prosecutor has the budget to staff 38 attorneys in its criminal division. In a month, Patterson says he’ll be down to 31 with the pending departure of an experienced attorney. The office has five positions for attorneys in its Child Support Division, and four of those spots are occupied. The Child Support Division staffs the Springfield regional child support office for Greene, Christian and Taney counties, and is state-funded.
At a Greene County Commission briefing Feb. 22, Patterson told the three-member commission that his office is down seven attorneys from what would be full staffing. The challenge of trying to find attorneys willing to work in the public sector is growing, and so Patterson and his staff are bolstering their efforts to recruit younger, newer attorneys to work for Greene County.
Recruiting at Mizzou
Patterson is president of the Missouri Association Of Prosecuting Attorneys, and says his colleagues across the state are experiencing similar difficulties with having enough staff. There are legal job vacancies across the state, at private civil law firms and in government work.
“It’s the result of people doing different things, those who are older in the legal market leaving it, and law schools are not producing attorneys like they used to,” Patterson said.
A fresh-out-of-law-school attorney with no experience can sign on at the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for a starting salary of $58,572.80 per year.
“That’s for someone right out of law school. Of course, if I found someone with more experience, I could do more,” Patterson said.
However, finding experienced attorneys who are willing to move from the private sector into a public service job can be difficult because of the wage disparity often involved in such a move.
In response to the challenge of trying to land attorneys who are already licensed and experienced practicing in Missouri, the senior leaders in the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office are recruiting students who are still in law school at the University of Missouri. The recruitment involves sending staff members from Springfield to Columbia to conduct interviews, and sometimes to offer up more informal luncheons with catered pizza to provide law students with information about what it’s like to start out as an assistant prosecuting attorney. Greene County is likely to hire at least two law students who will graduate and start work in August, but they won’t have Missouri Bar licenses to practice law until September 2022.
“That recruiting period for us is November through May, really, to try to get those new grads,” Patterson said. “When I hire them – like I’ve done a couple, right? – they don’t actually fill the spot I have open until about six months later, so we’re always in this place where we’re catching up.”
Patterson explained that his office has been using an MU law student to do some back-end work, and they get nine hours of law school credit for that work.
“We’ve been very aggressive in our recruiting,” Patterson said. “That remains an issue for us.”
Recruiting is one issue. Retaining employees to stay in the prosecuting attorney’s office is a second matter.
“One of my largest problems is retention,” Patterson said.
It’s difficult to entice younger people with law licenses to come to Springfield to work for the pay that the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office can offer to lawyers who are starting their careers.
“Our job is hard. It’s the most rewarding job you can imagine, but it’s harder than some people want,” Patterson said.
Fewer courtroom appearances
The General Crimes Unit prosecutes misdemeanors and some felonies.
“We’re doing other things to try to cover those courts, because one of the things that I can’t control at all is having to cover the court. Court is set, right? I’ve got to send someone to go cover it,” Patterson said.
The Greene County prosecutor said he has also been working within the court system to try to reduce the amount of scheduling and appearances required for a court to process a case from start to finish. Patterson said that employees of the Missouri State Public Defender experience similar staffing crunches. Patterson said he is working with Rod Hackathorn, district defender for Springfield, looking at ways to reduce the number of appearances required in a court case.
“We have had multiple judges set jury trials, and then the week before that week of all these jury trials, we get told, ‘Oh, we don’t have the staff to support that many jury trials, so we’re going bump your cases,'” Patterson said.
Rescheduling trials is hard on attorneys who spend long days and resources preparing for the trials. Late schedule changes are also emotionally and logistically challenging for victims, witnesses and potential jurors.
“We need a better system for managing those dockets,” Patterson said.
Trials can also be affected by the availability of jury coordinators. There are three jury coordinators in Missouri’s 31st Circuit, which is Greene County. It takes at least two coordinators to handle the jury selection process in cases where juries are selected at non-courthouse sites, such as the White River Conference Center at Bass Pro Shops, in order to accommodate more than 100 people in a room with social distancing practices.
Each schedule change or postponement makes it less likely that all of the parties involved with a case will continue to cooperate and attend trials, Patterson said.
Inside the numbers
Patterson’s 2022 salary and benefits package is budgeted at $146,812.
The chief assistant prosecuting attorney has $111,966.40 budgeted for salary and benefits in 2022. There are nine senior assistant prosecuting attorney salaries in the budget, ranging from $80,000 to about $85,000 per year. A first assistant prosecuting attorney, and there are four of them in Greene County, has between $101,951.20 and $90,511.20 budgeted for pay and benefits.
In 1997, voters enacted a 1/4-cent law enforcement sales tax, expected to generate almost $17 million in 2022. A 37-percent portion of that sales tax, or $6.12 million, is split among the juvenile court, prosecuting attorney’s office, sheriff’s office and jail, and for maintenance of a two-way radio system.
A 1/8-cent law enforcement sales tax enacted by voters in 2012 is expected to generate $8.36 million. Again, the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is one of several law enforcement offices expected to take money from the sales tax revenue. However, none of the funding from the 1/8-cent sales tax is allocated for salaries, according to the yearly budget documents.
Salaries and benefits make up more than 96 percent of the prosecuting attorney’s overall budget of $3.8 million in Greene County.
It’s not just prosecuting attorney’s offices that struggle to hire. Missouri has a well-documented recent history of stress on the public defender system. In 2021, 43 new public defenders were hired across the state, but as of Dec. 31, the statewide public defender system was still understaffed by about 30 attorneys, according to statements made by Director Mary Fox.
The Missouri State Public Defender presently lists 30 openings for assistant public defenders, including one in Springfield. The starting salary for an assistant public defender, according to the job posting, is about $49,380 per year.
On Nov. 7, 2017, Greene County voters approved a 1/2-cent general sales tax increase, with about 60 percent of the voters approving it. In spite of the extra funding, the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Great Recession” that COVID ushered into the job market created openings at entry-level attorney positions because experienced lawyers decided to leave public service for other opportunities.
“It’s a lot more than usual. Fortunately, we added a bunch of spots with the 2017 sales tax, so that makes it a little easier to absorb it. Typically, this time of year we are down a couple, and usually throughout the year we are down two to three spots,” Patterson said.
Patterson said that an employee wellness fund has been a morale boost for attorneys in the prosecutor’s office.
The prosecutor is responsible for prosecuting all violations of state criminal law in Greene County.