In order for the CNMI to get off-island lawyers to commit to staying longer on the islands, the Legislature has to consider creating an exemption—for those who want to stay and work for the government—to the rule that requires them to take the NMI Bar exam after serving the government for four years.
This was the recommendation of Chief Prosecutor John Bradley, in response to Rep. Donald M. Manglona’s (Ind-Rota) question on the turnover rate of assistant attorneys general during last Wednesday’s hearing of the Office of the Attorney General’s budget before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Bradley, who himself is leaving the CNMI after his contract expires next week, said one of the factors he has frequently dealt with in getting lawyers to either stay or to return is the limitation that’s placed upon practicing law here with the government.
Bradley noted that, under the CNMI Supreme Court rules, once a lawyer is sworn in as a government lawyer, it’s only good for four years based on the reciprocity agreement. “And so almost immediately, when someone gets here, they’re having to make this decision whether to take another Bar exam,” he said.
The chief prosecutor said some people take the local Bar exam, pass it, and enjoy that long-term commitment. “But for other people, that’s a challenge,” he said.
Bradley said he left the Republic of Palau in part because he was running up against the same barrier of four years. Bradley had worked with the OAG in Palau for two and a half years. Before that, he was a prosecutor and an elected district attorney in Texas.
Bradley said one of the things that he would recommend is for the Legislature to simply create an exemption to the rule for lawyers who want to stay and work for the government.
“Because they are benefitting your agencies, your entities. And that’s one way you can think you can encourage that longevity,” he said.
For other lawyers who want to go out into private practice, they should take the local Bar exam and follow all the other rules, Bradley said.
“But if you’re working for a government agency, it seems like [making an exception to the rule] might be something you want to encourage people [so they’d stay longer],” added.
Bradley recruited lawyers for both civil and criminal divisions while the Palau attorney general, and assisted in recruiting lawyers and looking at trying to increase retention as chief prosecutor in the CNMI’s OAG’s Criminal Division for two years.
Bradley said that Manglona is absolutely right that retaining lawyers is a very common, complex problem in the Pacific. He said when he recruits and interviews people, he tries to be as transparent as he can about what the difficulties they will face challenges.
“Because I don’t want them to come here, and not finish the contract or just finish the contract and leave,” he said.
He said salary is certainly an issue too, but that there’s no way the CNMI can raise that salary to compete with whatever someone’s is going to make in the U.S. mainland because it’s not the same market.
Bradley said he agrees with Attorney General Edward Manibusan that the advantage of the CNMI is that this place is very attractive. He said of all the places where he has worked, he can easily say this has been the most enjoyable job he has had, both in terms of the office, his interaction with the agencies, but also with the people and the islands. “So your own Commonwealth sells itself very well,” Bradley said.
He said anyone who comes here is going to have to deal with the changes in salary.
He said the OAG has very good benefits and that he’s impressed that there is health benefits, and retirement benefits for those who stay.
Bradley said he also like the way that government lawyers are compensated to come here and help deal with the transition.
“You get an upfront payment. You do not pay for housing,” he said.
Bradley said he and his wife would love to stay here, but he’s got a 92-year old father and an 88-year-old mother who are not able to care for themselves anymore. “The guilt kills me,” he said.
Bradley said he has three children and a 1-year-old grandchild. “My daughter keeps telling me I’m going to miss her first birthday if I don’t come back,” Bradley said.
He said Manibusan is very good in allowing AAGs to have vacations, but COVID-19 has really removed that for a while.
Bradley said people have started taking vacations and he believes this will ease some of that pressure.
“In the long run, you have to take people who are willing to commit and willing to engage in a community and not just use this as an internship,” he said.
Manibusan said there are many reasons why lawyers come and leave.
“We have a beautiful place to begin with. And this is a great place to work and experience new legal theories,” Manibusan said, but one of those reasons is that when the contract ends, lawyers need to go back to their families.
As to salary, the AG said, this is a very competitive field as the CNMI is competing with Guam and other places. He said the salary range depends on the lawyer’s experience.