Dane County Courthouse (copy)

Former Dane County staff attorneys say their positions were overlooked and mismanaged, resulting in confusion over their employee status, poor compensation and a lack of benefits.

Eileen Dorfman, a practicing lawyer in Madison, worked as a staff attorney from 2015 to 2017. While she said her experience was valuable to her career, she added that working conditions made her feel undervalued by the county.

“They just have overlooked these positions for so long. It’s like they were an afterthought,” Dorfman said.

On Thursday, the Dane County Board of Supervisors took a first step in addressing how staff attorneys are categorized as employees. The county also intends to conduct a survey of staff attorneys to determine possible next steps in workplace conditions like pay, health insurance and holidays.

The primary issue is that staff attorneys have been categorized as limited term employees (LTEs), which are capped at 1,200 hours per year. However, the county has traditionally ignored this cap for staff attorneys.

Supervisor Tim Kiefer, District 25, who is also a lawyer, called the 1,200-hour limitation a “gray area” that no one has enforced. Further, he said there is no incentive to enforce the annual hour limit. Attorneys do not want to stop working and getting paid, and judges value their work, Kiefer said.

“That’s a bad way to do business,” Kiefer said. “We shouldn’t have ordinances on the book that we aren’t enforcing.”

To clear up confusion about how many hours staff attorneys can work per year, the board voted to remove the LTE designation as part of a larger ordinance change on civil services. Staff attorneys are now considered in a middle category, not being full time or limited term. This “mezzanine” level category also applies to airport interns.

“Taking them out of the category is a smart thing to do,” Kiefer said.

The board also agreed to commission a confidential workplace survey of the current five staff attorneys to determine what changes they would like to see in their job. The Public Protection & Judiciary Committee will review the survey results. County supervisors could then introduce changes to the budget or ordinances to address concerns about workplace conditions.

The positions are currently paid about $21 per hour. They are eligible for health insurance, which was instituted through the Affordable Care Act.

Dorfman said the LTE designation restricts staff attorneys from receiving full-time employee benefits and pay that is appropriate for their education and experience. She said the designation caused problems with the county’s human resources department when trying to address questions regarding health care and student loans.

Dorfman said the board’s actions are a “step in the right direction” but an “imperfect solution.”

“The most important thing from my perspective is that it’s actually getting attention at a time when the economy is different and the county’s resources are different,” Dorfman said. “It’s definitely a bandage because there are still going to be technical details to hammer out.”

Staff attorney job

Staff attorney positions are geared toward recent graduates of law school and meant to be an educational experience that launches new lawyers into their careers. Attorneys are expected to stay on the job for about two years. They conduct legal research, consult with judges and write opinions.

“What I can say for sure is our staff attorneys are amazing professionals and do a very good job of helping the judiciary with its workload,” Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn said.

Under former county executive Kathleen Falk’s tenure, the positions became political. Falk’s 2009 budget proposal withheld funding for staff attorneys unless judges complied with a quota for community service sentences.

Staff attorney positions are typically not paid well. When Dorfman was working, she was paid about $17 per hour, which she said was less than other county positions that required a lower level of educational attainment and less than any judicial law clerks in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

As LTE positions, staff attorneys did not earn vacation, paid holidays or sick leave and were forced not to work during official closures.

Dorfman said health insurance premiums increased on a sliding scale depending on the number of days worked in a quarter. Missed days, including holidays that they were not paid for, caused an increase in premiums.

Dorfman relayed one incident where a colleague took four weeks off of work after giving birth. Dorfman said her colleague was not informed that those missed days would result in paying out of pocket for her health insurance premium.

Former staff attorneys reiterated the valuable educational experience they received in their role but spoke of similar concerns raised by Dorfman.

Laura Force, a former staff attorney from 2016-2017, said she felt that the county viewed their positions as “expendable.” Leslie Freehill, who worked for one year from 2015-2016, said the job conditions were a “struggle” despite the fulfilling work.

“We have a busy and burdened court system, and I believe the staff attorneys help the judges run that efficiently and manage a very large caseload,” Freehill said.

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