Bethlehem Press

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Law clerk salaries raise questions

Tuesday, November 1, 2016 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

A recent investigation into the salaries paid to Northampton County’s nine law clerks reveals that they are being paid 32 percent above the annual mean salary for law clerks in Pennsylvania. This is leading them to make careers out of what traditionally is a one or two year job. Since 2010, they have been paid $110,225 on top of their salaries to process no-fault divorce decrees, even though that is already a part of their job description. Some are also moonlighting for attorneys who practice before Northampton County judges.

What is a law clerk?

Northampton County currently has nine sitting judges, one senior judge, six special court masters, two guardians ad litem and nine judicial law clerks.

Historically, a judicial law clerk is a recent law school graduate who spends one or two years under the wings of a judge, writing opinions, assisting in legal research and in processing the caseload. The whole point is to turn a recent law school grad into a good lawyer, and then kick him out and in bring someone new. The judge is a mentor. The clerk is his protégé.

Bureau of Labor

Standards: Law clerks are overpaid

In 2007, then Court Administrator Jim Onembo demanded that the salaries for law clerks be raised so the county could be competitive. Since that time, starting salaries for judicial law clerks have continued to climb in Northampton County.

The current starting salary is $57,925.71, the same amount of money paid to an assistant DA or assistant public defender. A prosecutor and public defender can put in an 80-hour work week if he or she is trying a case. They hold people’s lives in their hands while a clerk holds a judge’s robe. Though a few clerks must put in a 40-hour week, most of them are gone when the judge they work for is gone.

This starting salary is well above the $43,770 annual mean wage paid to county law clerks in Pennsylvania, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Because they are being paid 32 percent more than the average mean wage, these law clerks are now viewing the position as a career option. Three of Northampton County’s nine law clerks have been with the county between eight-10 years. Their salary has increased, and two of them are currently being paid a $66,102.82 salary.

These employees also receive benefits and are vested in a defined benefit pension after five years.

Northampton County’s six remaining law clerks have been with the county for two and a half years or less, and are paid $57,925.71.

At a budget hearing Oct. 26, President Judge Stephen Baratta defended the salary, indicating his own law clerk puts in a 40-hour week and this is appropriate compensation for a new attorney. “I can’t speak for other offices,” he said. He also indicated that some judges like having a seasoned law clerk.

NorCo judicial law clerks paid $110,225 in stipends since 2010

In addition to making this a career, these law clerks are receiving stipends above and beyond what is authorized by council. They are essentially getting extra money for doing their job.

If you go to the Civil Division and file a passport application, no clerk would dream of charging you extra money for her own work in helping you. If she did, she’d likely be prosecuted for theft and would certainly be fired on the spot.

But for the law clerks, the rules are different.

In divorce actions, when the parties are ready to wrap things up, they pay a $25 fee to the Civil Division, and ask the judge to issue a decree.

These are parceled out to the law clerks, and they are paid $25 for every divorce case they review, above and beyond what they are already being paid. They are paid this sum even though this is already a part of their job description.

That $25 adds up. In response to a Right-to-Know request, it has been discovered that law clerks have been paid $110,225 to process divorces since 2010, even though this is part of their job description.

This increases the pension for these clerks. It is unclear whether the county is deducting the required five percent employee contribution.

If this money went into the county’s coffers instead, that would amount to $18,000 per year.

President Judge Baratta indicated he had nothing to do with establishing, managing or paying out this stipend. He surmised it is a vestige of the days when law clerks were paid far less, but has failed to state whether he will end the practice.

Moonlighting

Despite a good salary and stipends, some of these law clerks are moonlighting for outside attorneys, writing briefs and doing research. President Judge Baratta indicated that the code of conduct has been recently changed to allow outside employment, but he refuses to permit his clerk to work for outside attorneys. He didn’t say whether other judges allow their clerks to moonlight.

Recent changes to the code of conduct do permit a law clerk to represent clients in other counties. But that’s a far cry from working for lawyers who have an active practice in Northampton County, even if it is out-of-county work. That code also provides that a “fair and independent court system is essential to the administration of justice.” When law clerks moonlight by working for attorneys with active practice in Northampton County, it becomes more difficult to maintain that there is anything fair or independent in the county’s administration of justice.

Law clerk salaries, hire dates and divorce stipends

This information was obtained pursuant to a Right-to-Know request.

Abigail Bellafato - $57,925.71. Hired 8/8/16. $125 in divorce stipends

Holly Frompovicz - $66,102.82 Hired 8/14/06. $13,300 in divorce stipends

Jordan Knisley - $57,925.71. Hired 8/10/15. $2,325 in divorce stipends

Heather Charnegie - $63,256.34. Hired 8/11/08. $12,225 in divorce stipends

Matt Alkon - $57,925.71. Hired 8/11/14. $4,175 in divorce stipends

Sara Moyer - $$57,925.71. Hired 8/22/16. $0 in divorce stipends.

Stephanie Spencer - $66,102.82. Hired 8/13/07. $13,375 in divorce stipends

Holly Huerta - $57,925.71. Hired 1/2/14. $5,200 in divorce stipends

Kelly Fackentrhall - $57,925.71. Hired 8/10/15. $3,650 in divorce stipends