When most people think of criminal defense attorneys, they think of high-priced, private lawyers. What many don’t know is that there’s an entire branch of the legal profession that provides free or low-cost representation to those who can’t afford it: public defenders. In this article, we’ll discuss what public defenders are, what they do, how to become one, and other important aspects of the job.

So, what is a public defender? A public defender is a lawyer paid by the government to represent criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire their own private attorney. Public defenders are typically employed by the state or federal government, but some work for local municipalities.

What Does a Public Defender Do?

A public defender’s responsibilities can be both rewarding and challenging. On the one hand, the public defender can often help their clients avoid jail time or get lighter sentences. On the other hand, the public defender must deal with hefty caseloads, demanding clients, and aggressive prosecutors.

The job of a public defender, by definition, is to provide legal representation to indigent criminal defendants. This includes representing clients at pretrial proceedings, negotiating plea deals with prosecutors, and representing clients at trials. Public defenders also handle post-conviction matters such as appeals and habeas corpus petitions.

Education and Licensing for the Public Defender Role

Becoming a public defender is not an easy task. In addition to completing a four-year undergraduate degree, prospective public defenders must also complete a three-year law degree from an accredited law school. After passing the bar exam, public defenders must complete a period of clerkship or internship with a public defender’s office before they can be hired as full-time lawyers.

In order to practice law in the United States, all lawyers must be licensed by their state’s bar association. Public defenders must also complete continuing legal education (CLE) courses on a regular basis to keep up with the latest changes in the law.

Public Defender Work Challenges

If you’re interested in becoming a public defender, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to understand that the job can be very demanding. You should only consider becoming a public defender if you are prepared to work long hours and handle a large caseload.

Second, an ideal candidate should be passionate about criminal defense work. Public defenders often have to deal with difficult clients and emotionally charged cases. If you’re not devoted to this type of work, it’s likely you’ll quickly feel overworked and worn down.

Third, you should be aware of the potential for exhaustion and compassion fatigue. Depending on the state, anywhere between 60% and 90% of criminal defendants need to be represented by a public attorney. This, unfortunately, leads to more than 90% of cases entering a guilty plea. This can lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness, especially if we consider the fact that a significant number of public defender offices don’t have an investigator on staff. They also have less supporting staff like paralegals. If you’re not prepared to tackle these challenges, it’s best to choose another vocation since dealing with these obstacles on a daily basis defines the public defender’s career.

If you’re passionate about criminal defense work and prepared to handle a demanding caseload, then a career as a public defender may be the right choice for you.

Just don’t lose sight of the biggest difficulty facing public defenders - the fact that they are often overburdened with the number of cases and not paid enough.

Since public defender offices are typically underfunded and understaffed, individual public defenders have to take on more cases than they can realistically handle. Because of this, most public defense attorneys don’t have enough time to dedicate to each client.

What does a public defender do for you despite these difficulties? They investigate the facts of your case, work with you to develop a defense strategy, file motions on your behalf, and negotiate with prosecutors. In some cases, they may also be able to get charges against you reduced or dismissed entirely. These law professionals consistently work cases where they attempt to disprove elements of a crime and are therefore knowledgeable about criminology and the criminal justice system.

In spite of all the hurdles, many public defenders find their work to be extremely rewarding. They are often able to make a difference in the lives of their clients, for example, help an innocent person who wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney or would be forced into a plea deal. 

Private Attorney vs. Public Defender

The Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the right to representation. This means that if a defendant isn’t able to pay for an attorney, it’s the court’s duty to assign a legal representative to that person. Since most defendants can’t afford an attorney, you’ll have significantly more work than a private attorney specializing in defending clients in court.

While having enough work and satisfaction that you’re helping people in need - public defenders reduce the conviction rate for their clients for murder charges by 19%, the chance of a life sentence by 62%, and overall time in prison by 24% - is great, there are some downsides you as a public defender will have to face regularly and private attorneys don’t even need to consider. You’re significantly more likely to be overworked if you work in the public sector. This can further lead to frustration in instances where you can’t be as effective as private attorneys who have more resources and time to dedicate to a single case. 

Hiring a private attorney vs. a public defender is a decision clients usually make based on their financial situation and the established opinion of public defenders. Some people might feel more comfortable with a private attorney because they feel like they’ll get more one-on-one attention. And still, others might have a preference for a public defender because they want to support the public system.

Either way, you shouldn’t feel discouraged by public prejudice. Private attorneys aren’t necessarily better at defending their clients in court. In fact, studies have shown there is little difference in results between public defenders and personal attorneys. One study showed that defendants who hired private attorneys were actually slightly more likely to be sentenced to jail time than those represented by public defenders.

What Salary To Expect

A public defender’s salary varies depending on the region, but most public defenders earn between $45,000 and $65,000 per year. The highest salary of a public defense attorney in the US is for lawyers in Santa Rosa, California - $105,000 annually. Some public defenders may also be eligible for benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. 

The hourly wage of a public defender, again, varies depending on the state in which they work. In some states, public defenders may also be eligible for overtime pay. For example, a public defender in California earns a base salary of $45 per hour, but they can earn up to $75 per hour if they work more than 40 hours a week.

In the United States, public defenders are paid by the government. In most cases, this means that they are paid by the state in which they work. However, there are some instances where public defenders can be paid by the federal government or by a local government. For example, many public defenders who work in juvenile courts are paid by the county in which they work. 

Unlike a private attorney’s fees, a public defender’s salary doesn’t depend on the complexity of the cases they handle. While a private lawyer will charge clients significantly more for defending them in a capital-crime case than for representing them in court for a criminal mischief, a public defender’s monthly salary will remain the same regardless of the type of case they tackle.