For prosecutor Chuck Finney, coming to work now is largely the same as the last nearly three decades he’s tackled consumer fraud and environmental protection cases for the District Attorney’s Office.
He fields calls from the public about unfair business practices, knuckled down on drug asset forfeitures and acted as a consumer advocate.
But he has no designated desk — and no paycheck.
Finny, 73, is one of three newly designated volunteer attorneys in the office as part of a pilot program blending cost-savings with new opportunities. For Finny, who retired slightly early in December to accommodate the program’s start and the hiring of new prosecutors, the switch is a way to remain active in the field for which he has a great passion while allowing the flexibility of personal time and a popular public access radio show.
“After 29 years with the office there is no way I would have just walked away,” Finney said.
The pilot’s other component are two young lawyers, Annie Cooper and Jacqueline Gauthier, who recently passed the bar and participated in the law student intern program.
District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said they were great candidates for hire but the jobs just aren’t in the budget.
Volunteering gives them vital experience for their resume and the opportunity to show the office what they’ve got in the event of future job openings. Like Finney, these younger attorneys are unpaid but, unlike the summer office interns, they are allowed to handle duties with greater responsibility like jury trials.
On the other side of the coin, the volunteer program saves the District Attorney’s Office — and therefore taxpayers — hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and benefits.
A top-level prosecutor like Finney, for example, earns about $185,000. Finney works two days a week now, or about 40 percent time, which is the equivalent of roughly $75,000. The new attorneys collectively save the office about $90,000 in salary and about $60,000 in benefits.
Well the arrangement technically isn’t a savings — Finney’s paid position is filled and the new attorney wouldn’t be working in the office otherwise — Wagstaffe said it certainly is a way of delivering service without the associated price tag.
Finney is fine with the arrangement too.
“I get great satisfaction, frankly, out of doing consumer protection both in my radio program and in the office so for me, yes I’m not being paid but that to me is irrelevant,” Finney said.
Outside of his day job as a prosecutor, Finney also hosts the radio program “Your Legal Rights.” Finney said the part-time schedule is also a way to ease into retirement — no small feat for a 49-year attorney.
He was planning on retiring soon anyway, he said, but Wagstaffe asked him to accelerate it in December 2013 to give a newbie an opportunity.
“I felt it was an important decision to make,” he said.
The concept of volunteer prosecutors isn’t unprecedented in the Bay Area. San Francisco has been doing something similar for a long time, Wagstaffe said.
But he said his office resisted the idea of people working for free until recently — a bit like “indentured servitude,” he joked — but the office is a place with limited turnover. Lawyers are staying longer, keeping spots filled and rising up the better-paying ranks, which stretch the budget and limit the opportunity for newcomers to get a foot in the door.
The volunteer program launched in January and Wagstaffe said so far the participants are carrying full case loads and are, for all intents and purposes, no different than paid prosecutors.
The District Attorney’s Office isn’t the only county department turning to volunteers for legal work. The County Counsel’s Office currently uses a recent UCLA law school graduate who helps alleviate the office workload while receiving practical work experience, said County Counsel John Beiers.
The pilot also fits in well with County Manager John Maltbie’s idea of an “agile workforce,” a rethinking of how the county hires and uses employees in a leaner, more efficient and cost-effective way. Volunteer programs, albeit it in different fashions, are also in the works for the Public Works Department and other county departments, according to a report Maltbie delivered to the Board of Supervisors on this new workforce plan.
While the two new law graduates are volunteering for a six-month stretch — although extendable if both sides agree — Finney said he has no set timeline for a permanent exit.
“I think I’m here as long as I would like to do this,” he said. “I’ve had a terrific career and it’s not something that, from my standpoint, I could leave and not be involved.”
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