The District’s legal arm is awash in mismanagement and disorder, leading lawyers to commit basic legal mistakes that cause some prosecutions to be dismissed, according to an independent study released yesterday.
The Office of Corporation Counsel (OCC) must undertake wide-ranging reform effort with at least $3 million in new funds, or its lawyers could continue to miss hearings and lose track of witnesses, according to a study by the Appleseed Center, a local watchdog group.
Corporation Counsel Robert Rigsby did not dispute or agree with the problems cited in the Appleseed report, but he said the “train wreck” of an agency he inherited in December 1999 can’t be fixed in a flash.
“These reports point to some very difficult structural problems in this office that have been here a long time. We have a long way to go,” said Mr. Rigsby, who has begun to reorganize the agency.
The head of the Appleseed Center agrees.
“These are not problems that can be resolved overnight. These are not problems that can be resolved with more money, though more funding would help,” said Joshua S. Wyner, executive director of the Appleseed Center.
The OCC handles the District’s legal services, including defending agencies and employees or filing suit on their behalf, providing legal advice to the mayor and his agencies, and acting as the guardian of abused and neglected children.
The office prosecutes juvenile crimes and some misdemeanors, while the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia handles felonies.
The Appleseed Center’s report, conducted over 16 months with the cooperation of the District, breaks the OCC’s problems into three main categories:
n Problems with the “front line” lawyers, who “are thrown to the wolves” with little or no supervision.
The OCC suffers from high turnover among the underpaid lawyers who conduct the day-to-day work of the agency. In the child abuse and neglect section, for example, only three of 17 lawyers had worked at the agency for more than a year, the report states.
The starting salary for these lawyers is about $40,000, which is at least $6,500 less than the average pay for lawyers in five other city attorney offices surveyed, with adjustment for cost of living.
The work of support staff such as paralegals and secretaries “seems to be particularly poor,” Mr. Wyner said.
n A lack of accountability.
The lawyers have little accountability, and “the attorney evaluation system … is subjective, elaborate and ineffective,” the report states.
From April 1997 to March 1998, 93.6 percent of lawyers received a rating of excellent or better. Ratings like that “directly contradict” the evaluation judges and other lawyers gave the performance of OCC lawyers, the report states.
n Mismanagement and a disordered structure.
The OCC employs about 199 lawyers, 58 paralegals and secretaries and other support staff plus about 58 lawyers who work for other city agencies making it one of the biggest law firms in the District.
Yet the study found it did not have a computerized case management and tracking system, a common feature in private practice.
“Cases come in and they sometimes fall through the cracks,” Mr. Wyner said. “The reality is they sit on people’s desks until it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Mr. Rigsby acknowledged that “quite frankly, something is going to drop now and then.” The report also says the OCC has too many levels of bureaucracy.
The office has begun using a pilot computerized case management program, Mr. Rigsby said.
Mr. Rigsby said he asked the Appleseed Center in April 1999 to analyze the OCC and issue a report last December, when he was promoted to the top job.
The report took longer than expected, Mr. Rigsby said, so he began making improvements and commissioned a management consulting firm to study the office.
Some of the improvements he has made include:
n Using “performance contracts” for lawyers and supervisors. The contracts use objective criteria to grade workers, much like a report card.
“People are now being held accountable for the actions or non-action,” he said.
n A new management structure.
The report by consulting firm Hildebrandt International did not evaluate the current status of the OCC. Instead, it took data about the requirements of the OCC and formulated recommendations on how to accomplish those.
Its recommendations are aimed at fixing the same problems outlined in the Appleseed report.
Mr. Rigsby also created an advisory panel of five experienced leaders in the local legal community including former U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova to help fix the OCC.
The OCC will combine the recommendations from all three groups into an action plan for City Administrator John Koskinen in the next two months. “I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Mr. Koskinen said.
Mr. Rigsby acknowledged that “a lack of resources” is one problem, and both reports state the agency needs more funding, both to increase underpaid lawyers’ salaries and to pay for technology improvements.
However, the District is overspending at a rate that will put it $200 million over budget by the end of the year, and extra funds are not readily available, officials said.