The City of Philadelphia wants to overhaul how it provides legal counsel to poor defendants and criminals by asking firms to bid for work now handled individually by hundreds of lawyers.

Officials say a new system could improve the defense that poor people get. But the lawyers who now do the work predict it will lead to worse outcomes in court.

"This is the 21st century, and we want to standardize a lot of the practices," said Everett Gillison, the city's deputy mayor for public safety and a former public defender.

Currently, when a conflict prevents the Defender Association of Philadelphia from representing someone, the courts assign the client a lawyer. Such conflicts arise when clients' legal interests diverge and the association cannot represent all the parties.

Gillison said a single provider could make the process more efficient and allow for better coordination.

The city's request for proposals states that, in addition to bidding for legal services, interested firms should also explain how they would provide other needed services, including investigative work, expert consultation, and social and other services. Such work could include mental health and drug and alcohol assessments.

The city spends $8 million to $10 million yearly on so-called conflict counsel, who work in family and criminal courts. Under city fee schedules in effect last summer, private lawyers were paid a flat fee of $350 to defend misdemeanor cases and $600 for defendants facing felony counts.

From July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011, there were 22,441 conflict appointments in Philadelphia's Family, Criminal, Municipal, Orphans, and Traffic Courts, according to the city's proposal.

Gillison said that, while he hoped that consolidating work would save money, that was not the primary goal.

"It's also in raising the level of services to these individuals," he said.

The city has attempted such changes before, only to meet crushing resistance from lawyers.

Lawyer Samuel Stretton said he was prepared to sue the city if it moved forward with the plan, for which bids are due Jan. 18. He believes such a new system would seek only to save money and not to provide high-quality representation, which could trample on the rights of poor people.

"It doesn't make any sense, this proposal, and I'm really kind of taken aback that the city would do this without talking to people like myself and others who are involved in this kind of work," Stretton said. "This is a proposal where they think they can get something cheaper, and it's impossible."

The Philadelphia Bar Association has not issued an opinion on the proposed change, said Chancellor Kathleen D. Wilkinson, and hoped to learn more from the city.

Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520

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