I want a real attorney.
I could not afford to hire an actual attorney.
I do not want a public pretender.
There are so many variations, but the message is always the same. Time and again, clients and even prospective jurors will make these sorts of comments. As a new public defender, you might take it personally, but overtime, you learn to just smile and carry on. The comments no longer bother you. In fact, you find them comical.
Private attorneys and public defenders have the exact same formalized training. They both successfully attended college. They both took the Law School Admissions Test. Both successfully completed three years of law school and graduated with a juris doctorate. Both passed the Bar Exam. They both passed the Moral Character Determination. They both obtained their attorney’s license.
The only true primary differences? Public defenders work for a government agency while private attorneys work for an independent law firm. Public defenders represent indigent defendants, those who cannot pay $80,000 for a private attorney to take their case to trial. Private attorneys represent clients who are sufficiently wealthy enough to pay their own legal fees. The one notable exception is that oftentimes, private attorneys serve on a conflicts panel and take cases of indigent defendants when the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest. However, conflict cases do not sustain the law practice of a private attorney.
Despite identical schooling and test taking, the misperceptions are boundless. You commonly hear that public defenders have such a heavy caseload that they cannot give your case the individual attention it deserves. Public defenders are dump trucks—they want everyone to plead guilty so that they can close out another case file. Public defenders are not good enough attorneys to work for themselves; no one who is smart and sufficiently skilled to work as a private attorney would slave away in a public defender’s office. A private attorney will get you a better plea bargain. Public defenders are not prepared. The list goes on and on.
If I were in legal trouble, I would want a public defender to represent me. Similarly, if law enforcement arrested a family member or close friend for a crime, I would advise him or her to stay with the public defender. Public defenders are in court nearly every single day. They oftentimes do have more cases than private attorneys, but they also have more current courtroom experience. The judges and the district attorneys are very familiar with the public defenders that are in and out of the courtrooms daily.
Public defenders engage in many more trials each year than private attorneys so they have great familiarity with their way around the courtroom. Public defenders are not dying of nervousness during the jury selection process as some private attorneys are because they are out of trial practice. Public defenders cross-examine witnesses with alarming regularity. They exude confidence.
Just about all of the private attorneys who have stellar reputation as a trial lawyers received their training and experience in a public defender’s office. They were just as amazing in trial when they were a public defender, but for personal reasons, they decided to pursue the path with more monetary gains and greater scheduling flexibility. Other private attorneys started their own practices because they were unable to secure jobs as a public defenders. Public defenders’ offices let go of other now-private attorneys for disciplinary issues or poor performance. There are numerous reasons why a lawyer may enter private practice.
Of course, there are bad apples in every field. There are incompetent doctors that I would avoid like the plague. There are chief financial officers that embezzle money from companies. There are accountants that have a poor work ethic and frequently overlook errors. There are teachers that have no control over the classroom and no passion for their job. Likewise, there will always be public defenders that are less than desirable just as there will be private attorneys who are an embarrassment to the legal profession. That is human nature. However, that does not mean that all public defenders are terrible nor does it mean that all private attorneys are amazing.
I understand that it is fear driving many of people’s perceptions about public defenders. They are fearful that all the horror stories they have heard from others with free representation will come true. They are fearful that a public defender will not work as hard because the client is not directly paying them. They are fearful about what the outcome of the case is going to be and whether they will have to spend years behind bars. They are in one of the most stressful periods of their life.
It is easy to take your personal fears out on a public defender or other free attorney. While I am ashamed to admit it, I have behaved the same way. A while back, a family member had a free attorney appointed to represent her in a civil matter. My first thought was, “Oh no. This attorney is going to be terrible! She won’t know what she is doing!” I advised her to hire a private attorney to ensure a better outcome in her case.
Now, I know that was my fear speaking. My anxiety during that time of my life was overwhelming. By encouraging my family member to hire a private attorney, I felt as if I had some semblance of control over the situation. False control.
However, what I also learned from my family member’s situation? A paid attorney is not equivalent to adeptness and a strong work ethic. Instead, I was even more frustrated with the private attorney. It was continuance after continuance after continuance. It felt as if the lawyer never got anything done on the case and the outcome was not satisfactory. While I am well aware that this is a stereotype of private attorneys—they continue all cases to make more money—this was my personal experience. I know that another private attorney could have expertly handled the matter. But, the free attorney could have also skillfully handled the matter and then my family member would not have the financial burden that resulted from hiring an attorney.
Public defenders and other court-appointed attorneys are tremendous lawyers. They are real lawyers. They have the same training as any other lawyer. Many public defenders have a tremendous amount of compassion for their clients and absolutely love what they do. It shows in jury trials when an advocate is passionate about his or her job. Instead of alienating court-appointed attorneys, be grateful that you are able to obtain excellent representation free of charge. Overall, public defenders are the best and most experienced attorneys out there.