Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall has seen so many resignations and retirements over the past three years that 64 percent of her prosecutors have five years' or less experience in the courtroom.

As with most county employees, LaWall's staff hasn't seen a raise in nearly four years, causing many to leave for the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Arizona Attorney General's Office, private practice and even the FBI academy. The exodus includes some of the county's most experienced attorneys, including Rick Unklesbay, Louis Spivak and Bill Dickinson.

If attorneys aren't experienced or haven't been adequately trained yet, conviction rates could suffer, LaWall said. "When expertise is missing, you have issues," she said.

"It's like being a basketball coach with a bunch of freshmen. They may be very talented, but there needs to be some seasoning before they can get to the NCAA championship game."

The office still maintains a 91 percent conviction rate, but the statistics don't show whether there has been a change in the quality of those convictions, such as how often defendants are convicted of lesser charges.

LaWall fears her situation could worsen, with several other veteran attorneys on the verge of retiring and the potential that some mid- level attorneys will leave once the economy turns around and private practices start recruiting attorneys again.

In Pima County Superior Court, Judge Richard Fields, who presides over the criminal bench, is concerned about the future as well.

"I can't say I've really seen an impact yet - it's probably too early - but I think it will be coming quickly," Fields said. "There have been a lot of young, new people hired recently. I just don't think the full impact has filtered through yet."

On the other hand, Fields said people shouldn't always equate youth with mistakes.

Public Defender Robert Hirsh expressed doubts that the experience drain at the County Attorney's Office is affecting trial outcomes.

Inexperience doesn't necessarily lead to more defense wins, Hirsh said. It just levels a playing field that has always favored the prosecution.

"We're not stealing cases at trial, and we're not winning any motions unless the law and the facts are on our side," he said.

Fields said he has been surprised by the number of people leaving LaWall's office because people tend to stay put in turbulent economic times.

"I can only guess that they are not as happy as they wish. There could be a number of reasons," Fields said - starting with money.

When she joined the office in 1976, LaWall said attorneys could expect cost-of-living, merit-pay and anniversary increases annually. Now attorneys don't know if they'll ever see an increase.

Pima County records indicate the 29 prosecutors hired at $57,000 between 2006 and 2009 are making roughly the same as the nine hired within the last year.

Hirsh's Public Defender's Office isn't experiencing the same high turnover rate.

While 53 of LaWall's 83 attorneys (64 percent) have five years or less experience, only 30 of Hirsh's 76 attorneys (39 percent) have the same inexperience level.

Last year, Hirsh persuaded Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to give his office an extra $42,000 for salaries to correct the imbalances between new hires and more experienced attorneys, which he used to give raises of $1,500 and $750 to those hired in 2007 and 2008.

But Hirsh said that little bit of extra money isn't why more of his attorneys are sticking around. It comes down to morale, he said.

"Our attorneys love to work here," Hirsh said. "Our lawyers are satisfied with their jobs, and they believe in the work they are doing."

He suggested a County Attorney's Office policy of not allowing prosecutors to offer plea agreements on their own contributes to LaWall's turnover rate.

Fields has also heard talk that LaWall's stringent plea-agreement policies and a lack of autonomy have factored into some attorneys' decision to leave.

"At any job, in any business, people want to feel as though they have some independence, so limitations will affect morale and cause people to look elsewhere," Fields said.

LaWall disputes such suggestions.

Assistant Public Defender Joel Feinman recalls winning an acquittal recently for a client accused of stealing a tractor after a law enforcement officer's testimony differed significantly from a recording of the officer's radio transmission of the events that night.

The case should never have gone to trial, Feinman contended, adding that he believes forcing prosecutors to go to trial on cases they don't think should go to trial is bound to take a toll on their morale. "I'd become disheartened."

Several defense lawyers brought up cases in which they believe justice would have been better served by a plea deal, but prosecutors were not allowed to offer them, and they believe this fuels frustration in the County Attorney's Office.

Defense attorney Brick Storts said the prosecutor, the defendant and the victim all agreed to a 10-year prison sentence for one of his clients facing multiple felony violence charges recently, but the County Attorney's Office leadership nixed the plea deal.

Forced to take what he said was a weak case to trial, the prosecutor came away with a conviction on a misdemeanor charge and a sentence of time served, he said.

"It's tougher to keep people if there's not a happy work environment," Storts said.

Defense attorney Rick Lougee said less experienced attorneys are less likely to spot cases that ought to be dismissed, but even if they do spot them, they are less likely to push against the grain.

"You don't learn this stuff in law school. You've got to get into the courtroom," Lougee said.

LaWall said she isn't familiar enough with the specific cases cited to comment on them, but she said there are many factors that go into deciding when plea agreements are offered, including past convictions.

Her attorneys know about her policies from the beginning, LaWall said.

"I try to make sure they understand when they come to work for me that I have plea policies and I'm the elected official," LaWall said. "The people in this county didn't elect 100 different prosecutors; they elected me. I know some individuals may chafe against that, but my office is no different than any other prosecutors' office."

LaWall said she was unaware of the raises Hirsh was able to get, but she said she would look into getting a similar deal for her office.

By the numbers

Percentage of attorneys with more than five years' experience:

Pima County Attorney's Office

2006 - 43 percent

2008 - 61 percent

2011 - 36 percent

Pima County Public Defender's Office

2006 - 55 percent

2008 - 42 percent

2011 - 61 percent

Arizona Attorney General's Office*

2011 - 84 percent

*Statewide

Sources: Pima County Attorney's Office, Pima County Public Defender's Office, Arizona Attorney General's Office

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com