- Richard Shawl first wanted to begin a career in law to play to his strengths.
"I figured if I was going to argue I might as well try to make a living at it," said Shawl, a private criminal defense lawyer.
But making a living at it proved to be difficult.
"I'm not making money at this, I can't do it for much longer," said Shawl.
Shawl said he made more money in his previous job as a truck driver than he does as a lawyer.
He is a private attorney with his own law office in Rhinelander, but nearly all of the cases he takes on are public defense cases. Those are cases assigned to him by the government when the defendant can't afford his own lawyer. Shawl takes them partly because he enjoys the work, but also because there wouldn't be enough work for him otherwise.
"If I was taking solely private cases I would be out of business at this point," said Shawl.
There is a shortage of attorneys in the area, so oftentimes private attorneys need to take public defense cases.
"The primary intent is that they would take the conflict cases, the cases staff attorneys can't take, but sometimes we have so many cases the staff can't take them anyway," said Suzanne O'Neill, the Regional Attorney Manager for the Wausau Region of Public Defenders.
But the payoff is slim.
The state public defender rate for private attorneys is $40 an hour, the lowest in the country.
That's been the rate since the 1980s.
"I graduated law school in 1984 and I'm 64 years old now. That's my entire career without a raise," said Shawl.
In addition to low pay, the shortage also often has attorneys traveling all over the state to take cases.
"I've gotten referrals from Barron, I've taken cases in Washburn," said Shawl.
"We've just had to extend our search further and further because there are fewer and fewer attorneys in the state, certainly in our area, taking public defender appointments," said O'Neill.
This year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard a petition brought forward to change the rate.
Crandon's Hank Schultz was one of the two lawyers who wrote the petition. He started working on it 10 years ago.
"I saw problems back in the 1980s with the $40 an hour rate," said Schultz.
The court decided to raise the pay for some judge-appointed lawyers.
But the court didn't agree to raise the pay rate for state-funded public defenders from $40 per hour, which deters attorneys from taking those cases.
"It actually costs more than $40 an hour simply to have a law office," said Shawl.
But this ruling doesn't mean Schultz will stop working towards an increase.
"If we don't get what we need from the Supreme Court we aren't just going to let it sit, we're going to keep pushing," said Schultz.
Schultz and other authors of the petition are waiting for a final decision from the court. Two other options for raising the rate include going through the legislature, which has failed in the past, and filing a lawsuit.
Written By: Rose McBride