Starting assistant DA salaries seem criminally low

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

A pop song once asked, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” Well, if you want to be a highly paid deputy district attorney, learn the way.

No other DA’s office pays more than the one in California’s Santa Clara County, home of San Jose. It compensates its starting DAs with a cool $127,518 salary.

That’s the highest in the nation, according to a recent analysis by Biglaw Investor.

And that kind of money is an outlier for newcomers to this profession. Most starting salaries are not anywhere near six figures. Chicago? It pays $67,799. Phoenix? It pays $61,484. Seattle? Try $70,774.

Thinking of going to the Big Apple to launch your DA career? The Manhattan DA pays $70,500. The average rent in Manhattan? It’s a wee bit north of $4,000 per month. That’s $48,000 out of your pocket right there.

Miami? Working as a DA pays $50,000 annually. We’re guessing the cocaine cowboys they have to prosecute make a tad bit more — likely in a week.

“The biggest takeaway is that the salaries are so low,” Nelson O. Bunn Jr., executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said of the analysis. “And that hurts recruitment and retention.”

Many recent graduates have debt, and it can be difficult to pay it down if starting salaries are low, Bunn said. So many law grads may look elsewhere to start their careers.

While many are drawn to public service jobs such as this, the draw quickly loses its luster when applicants learn about the poor compensation, Bunn said.

It’s a very stressful job. “It can weigh on you,” he said.

The popular narrative is that prosecutors are part of a criminal justice system that unfairly targets the poor and people of color. However, these offices are becoming more progressive and turning away from harsh penalties, Bunn said.

That lock ’em up and throw away the key style of prosecution is history, he said. Yet that perception is tough to shake, which adds to the stress of the work.

Biglaw Investor noted that it did this salary analysis when it discovered that there was little information on how much these jobs paid in various parts of the country. 

“This is our first attempt at creating a resource that contains salary information for entry-level criminal prosecutors nationwide,” Biglaw Investor said. “We gathered this data by calling multiple offices in the 50 largest cities in the United States, plus making sure we have at least one city from every state, for a total of 72 cities.”

The average salary was determined to be $66,802. The lowest paying job reported was in Manchester, N.H., which pays $40,604. The best paying jobs are on the West Coast. Oakland, Calif., pays $104,540. San Francisco pays $114,816.

But Los Angeles pays only $82,900.

District attorney starting salaries

So, what is up with San Jose? Well, it’s in Silicon Valley, where Google, Apple, Facebook and all sorts of high-tech powerhouses are located. They pay attorneys a lot, said Jay Boyarsky, chief assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County.

“We want to attract the best and the brightest,” he said. “And you need to be competitive. We’re thrilled to have the highest pay. It helps us with recruitment and retention.”

Santa Clara County also has a prevailing wage in its charter, meaning government employees are compensated at a higher rate, he said. They need to be in Silicon Valley, which has the highest housing costs in the nation. The median home price is $1.4 million.

The DA’s office also wants to attract people who look like the people who live in the area. That means the office has to be as diverse as the county, Boyarsky said. People of color tend to graduate with higher law school debt because many come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The Santa Clara County DA’s office can attract them because the starting salary, while not equal to Big Law, is still substantial.

While this kind of a work is a calling, you shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty to do it, Boyarsky said.

He said he has no idea why other offices don’t pay more competitive salaries. A lot of young attorneys are attracted to the work, get valuable trial experience but then leave for private practices and higher pay.

“It’s a brain drain,” Boyarsky said.

Despite the pay offered in many locales, many law grads are attracted to these jobs.

From Reddit: “There is no better job right out of law school, in my opinion, especially if you enjoy negotiating, public speaking and trial advocacy.”

Want reasons? Here are several:

“First of all, you’ll get more courtroom experience in a week than most ‘hanging your shingle’ folks get in an entire year,” the Reddit poster continued. “Second of all, you’ll get respect. Many seasoned attorneys and judges did time in the trenches. Third, you’ll get to know the judges and their individual quirks, as well as the session’s clerks. Believe me, word gets around fast when a new ADA (or whatever) shows up. Fourth, spending hours a day in a working courtroom will build up your stamina, teach you to think on your feet, bargain with defense counsel, etc. Fifth, you’ll get to really know your fellow counsel. Sixth, you’ll never get another speeding ticket.”