Becoming a public defender is a great way to make a difference in your community and help those who may not have access to justice. There are many different paths you can take to becoming a public defender, and the best way to find out what’s right for you is to explore all of your options. In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the different ways to become a public defender and what you can expect from each path. We’ll also provide some tips on choosing the right career path for you.
1. What Is a Public Defender?
A public defender is a person who represents individuals charged with crimes and can’t afford to hire an attorney. All 50 states have a public defender system in place, which was created to ensure that anyone facing criminal charges is given adequate representation regardless of their financial status. Public defenders do not work alone; they are part of a team whose responsibility is to ensure the best possible outcome for their client’s case.
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), “The Sixth Amendment right to counsel exists because people charged with crimes often face powerful and aggressive prosecutorial forces that demand severe punishment.” A public defender is the only type of lawyer who delivers one-on-one legal representation for free. Public defenders are typically found in criminal courts, but they may also be used in family law cases.
Public defender offices are usually located within or near a courthouse where judges must approve them to practice before the court. These offices are staffed by attorneys, paralegals, and other support staff whose salaries are paid by the state or county to represent indigent defendants.
2. What Types of Public Defenders Are there?
Trial Public Defenders: As the name suggests, this type of defender is generally assigned to work on one case at a time and is responsible for aggressively representing their client in court. Trial public defenders will spend most of their time out in the field conducting investigations and working with law enforcement, witnesses, and other legal professionals.
Appellate Public Defenders: This type of defender works on appeals that take place after a trial has already taken place. The appellate public defender will typically take over the case once all possible state-level appeals have been exhausted. Appellate defenders work with other lawyers to file post-conviction motions or petitions for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court.
Legal Researcher/Writer: Legal researchers work in public defender offices to investigate cases and evaluate legal options for their clients. They help ensure that all pertinent information regarding a case is available to the defense team when needed most. Much of this type of work requires an extensive background in research, so strong writing skills are also necessary.
Legal Administrative Assistant: Legal administrative assistants support everything in a public defender’s office. They help keep files organized, assist with basic tasks like filing and typing, and may even conduct research if needed.
3. How Do You Become a Public Defender?
The requirements to become a public defender vary by state. In most cases, it is required that you first finish law school and pass your state’s bar exam before you can practice as an attorney or use the title of “public defender.” Most jurisdictions also require new attorneys to have some post-bar training experience before being assigned to cases on their own.
Since public defender offices are government-funded, most hiring is done within or by the judicial system. Opportunities for entry-level public defenders are listed online on the websites of state court systems and their respective state bar association websites. Attorneys interested in working for public defender offices can also check local legal journals, newspaper classifieds, and Craigslist for opportunities that may arise.
As many public defender positions are highly competitive, interested attorneys should apply as a volunteer first to get a feel of the environment and build some courtroom experience. Many jurisdictions offer defense training seminars or other programs that allow legal professionals to serve as court-appointed counsel or in other positions such as law clerks.
Public defender offices are understaffed and overworked, so they need all the help they can get. If you’re passionate about making a difference and defending the rights of those who cannot afford an attorney, consider applying for a position with one of these offices.
4. What Skills and Qualities Are Required to Become a Public Defender?
Public defenders need to have a strong work ethic and manage their time well. In this line of work, there is no such thing as a typical case or a typical day. Attorneys in this position should handle multiple tasks while still demonstrating sound judgment and patience.
Public defenders must also possess the ability to build rapport with their clients. If you can establish a good rapport with your client, they will be more likely to trust you and share information regarding their case. One of the first things the public defender office will do is assess the viability of their client’s defense; establishing trust early on can make or break a case.
Attorneys must also be knowledgeable about criminal procedure, proof, and evidence to defend their clients effectively. A successful public defender will possess the ability to be an effective litigator in any setting.
5. What Type of Salary Can You Expect as a Public Defender?
The pay for public defenders varies on a state-by-state basis. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for public defender lawyers in the United States was $57,790 as of May 2010. Since many jurisdictions do not have their own public defense offices but contract with other agencies or private companies, the number and types of positions available to those looking to enter this field will vary by location.
In some states, public defender offices have been accused of being underfunded and understaffed. As a result, individual cases can suffer as their attorneys do not have the time to devote to them that they may need. In a case where an attorney is working multiple cases simultaneously, there is a greater chance that they won’t have had time to prepare adequately for trial. Since the client is paying for this attorney, some may not feel as though they are being appropriately represented.
In states where public defense offices operate with a higher budget and staff, attorneys can expect a more balanced caseload and better representation of their clients.
6. What Are Some of the Things You Do Daily as a Public Defender?
A variety of tasks fall under the job description of a “public defender.” While each attorney has their duties, there are several that are pretty common across offices, including:
Preparing for court — this could include everything from reviewing police reports, studying case law, interviewing witnesses, or reviewing video footage
Meeting with clients and their family members to discuss the charges against them as well as any evidence that may work in their favor
Developing a defense based on what they know about their client’s case
Preparing for trial — attorneys must be aware of any deadlines that are approaching, as well as prepare evidence or testimony that will be presented during the trial
Meeting with defendants to prepare them for their day in court — this could include advice on how to dress or act while a jury is judging them
7. What Type of Hours Will You Be Expected to Work as a Public Defender?
Many factors influence what kind of hours a public defender can expect every week, including the location and size. In some areas, public defenders may have more cases than they have time to prepare for them to spend long days in the office. In other offices where a public defender may be working cases with fewer people, they will have more flexibility regarding starting and ending work hours.
In some cases, public defenders can expect to spend all day in court on certain days of the week, while others may only go once or twice a month. Attorneys who work on a case from beginning to end can expect to spend more time working with their clients than those who only see them during their trial.
8. What Is the Job Outlook for a Public Defender?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for public defenders is projected to be 8 percent through 2020. While this is a slower rate than the average for all occupations, it still represents a net gain of about 23,600 jobs by 2020. This increase in employment opportunities could be attributed to correctional facilities becoming overcrowded and more cases being brought to trial.
9. Where Do Public Defenders Work?
Public defenders can work in a variety of areas, including:
Federal — this would involve working with defendants on federal cases that the United States District Court is hearing. This type of public defense is offered to anyone who has been accused of breaking federal laws. While there are no set numbers for government-funded positions, there are about 80 federal public defender’s offices throughout the U.S.
State — similar to their federal counterparts, state public defenders work with defendants who have been accused of breaking state laws. There are no set numbers for state-employed attorneys like federal public defenders, but most states have an office dedicated to them.
Local — this area is likely the most widespread regarding employment opportunities, as more than 3,100 local offices in the U.S. have attorneys working on cases involving defendants from city or county governments.
10. Best Law Schools to Become a Public Defender
Public defenders must have a law degree, preferably from an accredited law school. Several schools are known for their criminal defense programs, including but not limited to:
The Ohio Northern University Pet tit College of Law — while smaller in size than other colleges on this list, the school has internship opportunities specifically with the Ohio Public Defender. This program is meant to prepare students for their future careers as public defenders, and it includes having the opportunity to work with current public defenders who are licensed, attorneys.
Ford ham University School of Law offers a criminal defense clinic where students can watch criminal cases being heard by law professors, volunteer attorneys from the Bronx Defenders organization, and a judge.
University of Georgia School of Law — students can participate in a summer internship with the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. This program allows them to observe several practice sessions and complete an independent project while working under attorneys from the council.
The public defender career path offers many opportunities for those passionate about helping others and working in the criminal justice system. It can be a gratifying career, but it also requires a great deal of dedication and hard work. If you’re considering becoming a public defender, make sure you do your research and understand what to expect from the job. And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone who has already made the journey down this career path. We hope you found this article helpful as you explore your options for a career in law.