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Overstaffed? Understaffed? Mayor and city attorney crunch numbers

April 30, 2008 |  5:55 pm

Does Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo have too many non-lawyers on staff? The question is at the center of a verbal and email budget squabble between the city attorney and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office, which is backing the mayor's proposed 60-person reduction of Delgadillo's non-attorney staff of 497 (the office has 556 lawyers). That amounts to a budget reduction of close to 5%.

After releasing his proposed 2008-09 budget last week, Villaraigosa visited the Times Editorial Board and had this to say about Delgadillo's office:

By the way, just so you know, they're about a 1,000-member department; only 500 are lawyers. What we're proposing to cut is administrative staff. They have administrative staff ratios, you do the research on it to confirm it, but as I understand it, they have administrative staff ratios that are greater than Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, O'Melveny & Myers, and some of the biggest law firms, which are basically three lawyers for each administrative position.

Well — not quite. Not even close, actually. Law firms have become notoriously tight with what many call proprietary figures, but several of the largest firms confirmed that the numbers published in an annual survey by the Downtown News are just about right. If you take a look at the survey and do a little simple math, you'll see that the ratio generally is the other way around: most large firms have at least twice as many non-lawyer staff as attorneys.

Delgadillo's office jumped on the Downtown News figures and argued that in fact, he's quite thinly staffed in comparison with law firms in the private sector. On Monday, Delgadillo's budget chief, Jennifer Roth Krieger, sent an email to the mayor's budget chief, Sally Choi, asking for the "source data for the information your office has put out (which shows that our office has a higher percentage of support staff than law offices in the public or private sector)." Choi responded by email that the only information the mayor's office put out was the 1:1 ratio of attorneys to non-attorneys; both emails were attached to a letter to the City Council's budget committee from top Delgadillo deputy Richard H. Llewellyn Jr.

Time to pull over and figure out what "staff" means. Law firms have in fact moved to a ratio of about three lawyers for every secretary, in part because lawyers with computers on their desks now do much of the document drafting that they used to dictate, and that their secretaries used to type up back, say, in the 1980s. But the mayor wasn't talking about the city attorney's lawyer-secretary ratio, but rather lawyers to staff.

Private firms have bulked up on paralegals, tech support, billing, marketing, and even complementary professional services like accounting. They are all administrative or support staff, and most large L.A. firms have two or three such non-lawyers for every lawyer. Delgadillo may not need a lot of that work done in-house, but he does need people to back up misdemeanor prosecutions and other functions that private firms don't have to worry about.

The comparison of city attorney and private firm staffing figures actually tells us very little, except that Villaraigosa and Delgadillo are spoiling for a fight. The city attorney told the budget committee that his staff is needed to make the mayor's LAPD build-up work. "But, without prosecution and resulting jail time," Delgadillo said, "an arrest is meaningless."

To interpret: Moving money from the city attorney to the police doesn't accomplish much.

Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said the staffing ratio was a "tangential issue." "We actually have to make real cuts to save real dollars," Szabo said.

By the way, here's something else Villaraigosa told the Editorial Board about Delgadillo:

"One council member said that if he doesn't agree to a 5% cut, maybe we ought to make it 10."

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