Three years ago, Mary Hobbie, a 29-year-old graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, left a job at the Civil Aeronautics Board to follow her boss to the D.C. Corporation Counsel's office, the city government's legal arm.
Assigned to the civil division, Hobbie quickly discovered the difficulties of being a city lawyer.
There weren't enough secretaries. Photocopying was mostly done by the lawyers themselves. A seemingly endless succession of trials left little time for preparation.
After just 10 months, Hobbie called it quits and left. The fatigue and frustration of working for an agency many consider underfunded and overworked had caught up with her.
"I got the impression of drowning very quickly after getting there," said Hobbie, who now works for the Agriculture Department. "I was doing Band-Aid treatment trying to keep things afloat, rather than sitting down and making sure everything was done right . . . I thought there was a tremendous personal toll."
Created to handle virtually all of the city's legal problems -- including misdemeanor and juvenile criminal cases -- the corporation counsel, with six divisions, 129 attorneys and an annual budget of $6.4 million, is the largest legal office of any jurisdiction in the Washington area. But its reputation in the legal community and among city officials is mixed.
"I feel the corporation counsel is evolving into an effective law firm, but it still has miles to travel," said Inez Smith Reid, who was appointed director of the office by Mayor Marion Barry a year ago.
Reid, who declined to be interviewed directly about the office, answered questions through a spokeswoman.
Last year the corporation counsel's five noncriminal divisions handled about 1,000 lawsuits against the city, another 2,000 claims filed on behalf of the District as well as 2,000 administrative matters, including hearings and opinions rendered to other agencies. In addition, the 28 attorneys in the criminal division prosecuted nearly 16,000 crimes, plus an additional 7,184 charges involving juveniles.
The office prosecutes teen-agers who run afoul of the law, takes drunk drivers and errant landlords to court, seeks custody of neglected children, advises city agencies on contracts and development projects, negotiates agreements with surrounding jurisdictions, writes legislation for the mayor and files suit against residents who don't pay their taxes.
Overwork is a problem throughout the agency, according to Reid, particularly in the civil division, where only 35 lawyers handle nearly all the city's lawsuits. Reid is hoping to hire as many as 25 lawyers more this year.
"At one time some people didn't want to go into the civil division because of the workload," she said, acknowledging that lawyer "burnout" and lack of preparation for cases has been a problem. "But now, many attorneys want to go there."
The city seldom seeks help from private law firms, although it is required to hire independent attorneys to advise on revenue bond issues and has hired legal help for some development projects and for utility rate matters before the Public Service Commission.
"As a practice, we have not retained outside legal counsel except for special services when we don't have in-house staff that can do the work," said City Administrator Thomas Downs. "We have a strict policy of not contracting for legal work" except in special cases.
City officials cite the office's balance sheet in legal judgments for and against the city as evidence that the corporation counsel is effective despite the heavy workload.
Last year the city paid just under $5 million in court verdicts and settlements while collecting about $4 million in delinquent taxes, child support payments and civil and criminal actions.
But it also lost two of the largest jury verdicts ever handed down against it, one for $1.5 million awarded a man who claimed he lost the use of his arm because of his high school football coach's negligence, the other $3.5 million awarded to the family of a woman who died on the operating table at D.C. General Hospital. The judgment in one case was reduced to $975,000 and in the other set aside.
Opposing lawyers say that in court the counsel's office is hampered by lack of resources and the relative inexperience of its staff -- also a common handicap for federal agency lawyers.
The entry level salary for recent law school graduates is less than $26,000. Although the average salary for attorneys in the office ranges from about $31,000 to nearly $37,000, it is still much less than what lawyers with comparable experience can make in private practice.
Like Hobbie, many young lawyers do not stay with the office long. Many supervisors in the office come from top positions in the federal government, and because there is little in the way of training, they are relied on heavily for their expertise.
"I think there is a trench mentality. We are all in the trenches together fighting against attorneys who often have better resources," said Leonard B. Bren, who spent five years in the office's civil division before taking a job two years ago with the law firm of Ashcraft & Gerell.
"My training has been my own training and actively soliciting criticism from judges and other attorneys," he said. "It is in some instances a real strength. . . . But by the same token, if there are mistakes being made, they become ingrained." Ed Bruske