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Orange County

Private Law Firms Come to D.A.'s Aid

To ease funding and staffing shortages, seven civil attorneys are deputized to prosecute misdemeanors. They will remain on their employers' payrolls.

June 21, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

In partnership with private law firms, the Orange County district attorney's office on Friday deputized seven civil trial attorneys to help prosecute misdemeanors at no cost to taxpayers, a program aimed at easing the caseload amid the budget crunch.

The recruits were selected from five firms through a formal application process.

They will be assigned full time for two months to various branches of Orange County's Superior Court system and will be paid their regular salaries by their firms.

The lawyers have received a week of classroom training, including lessons in prosecutorial ethics and the differences between civil and criminal practices.

Four will begin working in the courts July 7.

One lawyer from the first rotation will join the remaining three during the second rotation that begins Sept. 7, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dave Wagner, the office's training director.

Volunteer programs similar to the Trial Attorney Partnership have been used previously by the district attorney's office, but not in recent memory, Wagner said. The idea was resurrected mainly to deal with funding and staffing shortages, he said.

Earlier this month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to boost the district attorney's budget by $5.7 million, an increase Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said would prevent the layoffs of 42 employees, including 19 prosecutors.

Wagner estimated that each of the county's five courts that handle misdemeanors are down one or two prosecutors.

"Because of the budget crisis we are asking more of these volunteers than we have in the past," giving them more filings to handle and a greater range of work, Wagner said.

After being sworn in Friday, the new deputies were eager to get to work.

Matt Lilly, 30, will be assigned to North Justice Center in Fullerton. He has worked about two years at the Irvine office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has offices worldwide. Lilly said there are not many opportunities for new attorneys at large law firms to work in a courtroom setting.

"Here, it's a great experience," he said, adding that he has always had an interest in criminal trial work. "I believe in what they do. The opportunity came up, and it just made sense."

Chris Pitet, who has been at Gibson, Dunn for more than four years, agreed. The 33-year-old, who will be assigned to Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach, said he is looking forward to the challenge of meeting a higher standard of proof.

"Prosecutors are required to prove their cases to a higher degree" than civil attorneys, Pitet said.

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