Is It True Public Defenders Are Really Bad Lawyers?

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If you’ve ever heard a police officer read someone their Miranda rights, you’ve heard this:

“You have the right to talk to an attorney and have him or her present while you are questioned. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you at no expense.”

Different states have slightly different variations, but the meaning is the same: if you are arrested and can’t afford to hire a private attorney, you still have the right to a public defender who will fight for your rights in court, including going to trial for you if you choose.

There is a common belief that public defenders are bad lawyers. Today, we’ll look at where that belief came from and why, in my opinion, the majority of public defenders are excellent lawyers.

Then we’ll go over a few of the differences between working with a public defender and a private defense attorney.

What to Public Defenders Do?

Public defenders do the same type of work as private defense attorneys. The difference is, public defenders represent people who cannot afford an attorney.

In my experience as a prosecutor and private defense attorney, public defenders are some of the most dedicated, hardworking lawyers out there. They’re well educated, well trained, and fully licensed, just like private attorneys are. There are public defenders across the country handling every type of case, from misdemeanors to major felonies.

Public defenders spend a lot of time in court, so most are very experienced trial lawyers. Most public defenders fight hard for their clients in court, and believe strongly in every American’s Constitutional right to a defense.

So why do many people think they aren’t good lawyers?

It Comes Down to Workload

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Photo: khrawlings

The truth is, public defenders get a bad reputation mostly because they’re so overloaded with work.

Because everyone has the right to an attorney, public defenders can’t choose which cases they take the way private attorneys can. They must take any and every case they are assigned.

Would you believe the Portland area’s Metropolitan Public Defender Services handles over 15,000 criminal cases per year?

As a former prosecutor, I understand what it’s like to not be able to choose your cases. In that way, prosecutors are similar to public defenders -- they both have to take whatever cases are assigned to them. It’s easy to get overloaded with work that way. The difference is, public defenders are also bound by their clients’ wishes.

For example, although your public defender can give you advice, it is you who ultimately decides whether or not you want to go to trial.

In many districts, the result is enormous caseloads for most public defenders, which leaves them with less time to dedicate to each client.

Public Defenders vs. Private Attorneys

There are a few important differences between working with a public defender and a private attorney:

One-on-one attention

Because the majority of public defenders are so overloaded with cases, they aren’t able to give each client the individual care that a private attorney can provide. Private attorneys like myself can choose how many cases we take on, and usually have more time to dedicate to each person.

Responsiveness

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Another thing I often hear from people who have worked with public defenders is that they could never seem to get their lawyer on the phone.

Many people come to me because they know their phone calls will always be answered and I’ll be there for them when they need me.

Cost

If you qualify for a public defender, you won’t pay anything. Public defenders’ cases are payed for by the state, not by their clients. That means they work for lower salaries than private attorneys. Hiring your own attorney is more expensive, because you’re paying for the extra one-on-one attention and responsiveness they can provide.

Should I Work With a Public Defender?

The truth is, unfortunately, many people don’t have a choice. Public defenders are generally only appointed to people who cannot afford an attorney. If the state believes you can afford to hire your own attorney, they usually won’t give you the option of a public defender.

If you are concerned about your public defender’s level of competence and dedication, don’t worry. I’ve seen public defenders fight for their clients like they’re fighting for a family member.

Your location is another factor to consider.

Bigger cities like Portland have large agencies to handle all public defense cases. In smaller towns, on the other hand, many local private attorneys sign up to work additional cases as public defenders. If you live in a small town, and you’re appointed a public defender, you may very well end up with a high priced private attorney representing you.

What Are My Options?

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In rare cases people actually do have a choice between electing to work with a public defender and hiring a private defense attorney.

For example, college students with no income often qualify for a public defender, even if their parents are willing to pay for a private defense attorney.

If you have a choice, it’s up to you to decide which type of attorney is the best fit for you and your case. It’s a matter of understanding your case, your financial situation and the level of one-on-one attention you want from your attorney.

If you’re considering a private defense attorney and want to discuss your options, I’m happy to help.

Call my office today at (503) 498-6985 to schedule a free, confidential consultation.

Photos: Padraic, Martin Cathrae