ast year, Sean P. Sullivan had 1,600 clients, all of them poor and charged with crimes. He did not have to hustle to get the work. His thriving law practice came courtesy of New York City, whose courts appointed him to all the cases, a record number for one lawyer in a single year.
On a recent Thursday morning, he ambled into the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building in a rumpled gray suit, a shirt with a frayed collar and a stained necktie. Entering a packed courtroom, he called out the names of his first five clients. Two waved to him from the audience. He nodded, plopped down on a bench and went to work on a crossword puzzle.
Over the next four hours, Mr. Sullivan would represent a dozen defendants, and as they waited, half would complain bitterly that he never returns phone calls or that he runs away when they try to speak to him. Twice that morning, he would show up in the wrong courtroom. A colleague would have to fill in to represent a client whose court appearance Mr. Sullivan could not make.
He would miscalculate by several weeks the amount of time remaining before one client's case would have to be dismissed under speedy-trial rules. He would learn that another client had grown so frustrated with him that he had come up with the money to hire a lawyer. And back in the cramped office he shares with 11 other lawyers, he would admit that he had no particular filing system.
"I use the same filing the judges do," he said, tossing an imaginary folder toward an imaginary point on his cluttered desk. "They just throw it in the basket and someone else files it." But Mr. Sullivan cannot afford to have someone put his files away. Court-appointed work, he lamented, just does not pay enough. "Sometimes I come back here and I throw it down and then when the deadline comes for the motions, I miss them."
At the age of 38, he summed up his attitude toward his job with a baseball analogy. "Some guys can be in the major leagues and be frustrated they're not living up to their potential," he said. "Another guy can realize he's going to be a .250 hitter and be happy he's a .250 hitter. I can do this, and there's some satisfaction out of doing something and doing it reasonably well."
Mr. Sullivan was paid $125,041 by the city last year. He is one of dozens of private attorneys who, working alone, represent hundreds, even thousands, of indigent clients each year in a court system so desperate for lawyers that it puts no limit on the number of cases any one lawyer may take.
Mr. Sullivan acknowledged that clients complained about him but said he did a good job. "It's a high-volume place," he said. "I'm a symptom of the problem."
Nearly four decades after the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that indigent defendants have a right to legal counsel, almost no part of New York City's plan for providing the lawyers functions as it was intended.
More than most big cities, New York relies on private lawyers to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire their own. Most big cities assign such cases to public defender's offices, government agencies that have hundreds of staff attorneys, supervisors and support personnel, like investigators, social workers and secretaries.
In New York, the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit organization, was supposed to function like a public defender's office, representing nearly all indigent defendants. But Legal Aid, weakened in a dispute with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, now represents only about 50 percent of the roughly 385,000 people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies each year.
In sharply cutting Legal Aid's budget, the mayor also diluted the strength of a powerful force that regularly pursued civil cases to protect suspects' rights in the criminal justice system.
In the new system created by the mayor, several smaller organizations are now given 18 percent of the cases.
That leaves about 115,000 defendants in need of lawyers. To fill the gap, the city turns to private lawyers, not only for those defendants, but also for roughly 170,000 more who are given summonses each year for low-level violations as part of Mr. Giuliani's quality-of-life campaign.
Judges, lawyers and defendants say the system is at the breaking point.
"We too often see lawyers who were woefully unprepared, did little to investigate, were ignorant of the applicable law, had inadequate trial skills and did not appear to be committed to their client's cause," said Richard M. Greenberg, the attorney in charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender, a nonprofit organization that handles appeals of criminal convictions.
For indigent defendants, even those charged with the least serious transgressions, the stakes are growing. New laws have made criminal convictions grounds for denying people jobs, evicting them from city-owned housing, denying college financial aid and cutting off welfare benefits.
The flood of cases comes at a time when the number of lawyers willing to represent the indigent has dropped sharply, to 1,200 from 2,200 in 1993. Their chief complaint is New York's pay, $40 an hour in court and $25 an hour out of court, the second-lowest rate in the nation. Only New Jersey pays its appointed lawyers less — $30 an hour in court and $25 out of court — but most indigent defendants in New Jersey are represented by the state's vast public defender system.
More than a year ago, Judith S. Kaye, New York State's chief judge, said there was an "acute shortage" of lawyers for the poor and the problem had reached a crisis stage. Little has changed since then.
The problems have escalated over a period of years and have become "more and more dire," said Jonathan Lippman, the state's chief administrative judge. "I've never seen it like this, and I've been in the system for 30 years," Judge Lippman said. "Day in and day out, we are struggling to level the playing field. This can't continue."
The city spent $125 million on indigent defense last year, up from $116 million in 1995. But adjusted for inflation, that is a drop of 11 percent.
During the same period, the number of arrests for misdemeanors and felonies rose by 30 percent, and the budget of the city's prosecutors rose by 6 percent, adjusted for inflation, to $220 million from $179 million.