More often than I’d like to admit I have heard someone say something like, “I have the public defender, but I want a real lawyer.” This statement is both inaccurate and offensive on many levels.
Public defenders are real lawyers, as real as any better paid lawyer. They graduate from the same law schools, take the same bar exams, and are required to take the same number of continuing education hours as the rest of the lawyer population. They are not, as a rule, paid very well. If the signs on the windows are to be believed, the assistant managers at the QuikTrip are better paid. Plus, I am guessing, most QT managers don’t have a six-figure student loan to pay off.
Our system is designed to have checks and balances in place. Public defenders provide legal counsel to folks whose liberty is at stake and make sure that the system follows the rules. They are not, in my experience, usually folks who believe that their clients are all innocent or merely misunderstood. They are folks who believe it is their mission to ensure that the system treats all people fairly and equally, regardless of income, race, religion, or ethnic background. Plus, sometimes people really are innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. We are all, after all, innocent until proven guilty, no matter what the Court of Public Opinion says about it.
The people who most benefit from having a public defender, are the least likely to have any political sway. As a result, most public defender offices are underfunded and understaffed. The result is a large case load, which means that individual attention to each of their clients is impossible. I have one friend who is a public defender who recently told me (proudly) that she whittled her case load down to 250 cases. This means that in a 40 hour workweek with no lunch or potty breaks, she wouldn’t have ten whole minutes per client per week. And that’s assuming she isn’t caught up two or three days a week in court, or has to spend several hours at the jail waiting to talk to her clients, who may or may not even be available for her to talk to, which is more likely than not.
What public defenders can’t offer you in individualized attention, they can offer you in knowledge. In front of the same judge several days a week, and dealing with the same prosecutor several days a week, and often the same law enforcement personnel, they can lend an intimate perspective that private lawyers sometimes struggle with. They know exactly how Judge X and prosecutor Y will deal with a situation like yours, because there have been similar situations several times the week before. Although your situation is unique to you, odds are good it is not unique to the system. People ask me all the time, “I’ll bet you’ve never heard anything like this, have you?” And the answer is almost always, “Yes, actually, I have,” because that is a job hazard with being a lawyer. After a while, nothing shocks you or surprises you. Which is good, because few of us do our best thinking while shocked or surprised. If your lawyer has a ‘been there, done that’ attitude, perhaps that’s a good thing.
Sometimes it is true that you get what you pay for. If you want individualized attention, someone who has the time to pour over every detail and track down difficult witnesses and hire outside experts, you have to pay for that privilege. With some of the trickier cases, this may make a difference. But the truth is, more often than not it does not.
Most lawyers who do contract work for public defender offices and other appointed work will tell you that these clients, who are paying nothing for your services, are often the most demanding, the most unrealistic, the least thankful, and the most likely to file a bar complaint. As a private attorney, the money I get paid from the state for this kind of work is not enough to cover my overhead – for each hour that I work I actually lose money. I consider my time spent doing this community service. Public defenders have a hard job because the vast majority of clients they have fall into this category, and they are rewarded by being told they aren’t “real lawyers.” Yet they continue to do this because they believe in the system, and we all know it wouldn’t work without another side to keep everyone honest.
Like any other population of people, there are some public defenders who are fantastic at what they do, some who aren’t very good at all, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle. You will find no different a proportion of good, bad, and indifferent in the population of private attorneys.
I’m not sure who originally said “Beggars can’t be choosers,” but it is true. If you want to have a lawyer free of charge, you can’t then personally select the lawyer that you get for free. Lucky for you, who is selected for you is likely to be someone competent who believes in what they are doing.
This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here.