Will Public Defense Be Right for You?

Are you thinking of going to law school to become a public defender? If so, you probably don’t see yourself being that bumbling public defender from My Cousin Vinny. You more likely envision Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Bottom line, you want to stand up for the less fortunate when the odds are against them. No doubt, there is a deep pride and inherent grit that comes with calling oneself a public defender. It’s the kind of thing you are not shy to tell people at the bar on Friday, and something that might even raise a few eyebrows. When asked, “What do you do if you know your client is guilty?” you say, “I defend him just like everyone else.” If that fires you up, public defense might be in your constitution and in your future. But here are a few considerations in deciding whether you want to become a public defender, and where you want to practice:

1. The Office

Perhaps one of the most important things to consider is the particular office in which you choose to work. Each has its own culture and reputation, and it’s important to pick the one that fits you. Are you looking for a close working relationship with your colleagues or do you prefer to work more independently? In some offices, young attorneys are closely supervised by mentors and senior lawyers, while in others new attorneys handle their cases without as much oversight. Some offices divide attorneys into smaller teams, while others don’t internally divide in such a way. In some offices, colleagues know each other personally and spend significant time together socially, while in others the staff gets the work done and then goes back to their private lives.

Different offices also have different theoretical approaches to public defense. A “trial-ready” office will push cases to trial, believing that tactic forges the best outcomes for clients. Some offices utilize meticulous negotiation with the prosecution towards the same goals. More and more organizations practice “holistic defense,” a model that aims to reduce the collateral consequences of a criminal case, surrounding clients with an interdisciplinary team of criminal lawyers, family lawyers, immigration lawyers, social workers and others. So, factor into your calculation the type of office that would best suit you.

2. The Jurisdiction

Part and parcel of the culture of a public defense office is the jurisdiction in which it sits. In some criminal justice systems, trials are frequent, if not daily. If that public defender fire within you is ignited by courtroom litigation where you stand up and vigorously fight for your client, this environment might sound appealing. In some jurisdictions, though, trials are fewer and farther between, oftentimes because lower plea offers incentivize case settlement instead of the greater risks of trial. Furthermore, an urban criminal justice system may look very different than a rural or suburban one. Metropolitan systems can be enormous and attorneys will more rarely appear in front of the same judges or be opposed by the same prosecutors. More local systems are just that – more local – everyone might know everyone, for better or worse. Also, keep in mind that state public defense is separate from federal public defense, offering distinct types of cases and courtroom practice. Finally, in some jurisdictions, the nature of the system yields very high caseloads, while other jurisdictions allow public defenders a more manageable docket.
By nature, public defense is high energy and fast paced, but be aware that its appearance is not uniform.

3. The Lifestyle

Think about the kind of lifestyle you want to lead as a public defender. Any public defender doing a good job should probably find the work intense and demanding. That can often result in a fair amount of stress, both inside and outside the office. First, consider whether that is something you want or at least are willing to bear? If it is, how are you going to prepare yourself to handle it? In law school, you might hear about developing a “work-life balance.” Public defense demands a carefully constructed work-life balance to guard against quick burn out. Keeping track of your personal relationships and maintaining whatever it is that helps you relax can help. And don’t be scared to acknowledge stress or feeling overwhelmed. Having such emotions doesn’t make you less of an effective or dedicated defender, unless they actually prevent you from doing your work.

Additionally, expect to make a limited salary in comparison to some of your law school classmates. For example, in 2010, the national median entry-level salary for a public defender was approximately $47,500, with larger metropolitan areas generally paying slightly higher than less urban settings. Is that enough for you, whatever “enough” means? Moreover, many law students leave school with significant debt and monthly repayments can be substantial. While graduates working in the public interest sphere can enroll in a federal loan forgiveness program that reduces some of the repayment cost, that program may not pay for all of it, depending on your financial situation. To cover the remaining cost, certain law schools offer their own repayment programs in addition to the federal loan forgiveness program. But many don’t. Do your research ahead of time so that you aren’t caught empty-handed, so to speak.

4. Your Personality

Finally, an overarching consideration – your personality. Much of the above really focuses on what kind of public defender you want to be, and what environment best suits your vision. That said, at the end of the day, there is no single “public defender personality.” A more reserved defender can be just as zealous as an aggressive pit bull. Finding your style is what will matter most. Law school is the best time to experiment, take risks, and find that style. Clinics, practice simulations, internships, and externships provide great opportunities to handle real life situations under careful guidance. Take advantage of it.

If you want to be a public defender, there is definitely the need. But take the time to think through the kind of defender you want to be. That will help you do the best work for your clients, and be the happiest doing it.


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