In private practice, criminal defense lawyers are frequently asked about public defenders. The opinions of the folks asking about their appointed lawyers often takes on a familiar sound:
"Should I keep this guy?"
"He / she hasn’t even been out to see me!"
"I want a real lawyer!"
The truth is that public defender IS a REAL lawyer and he or she may be the best thing going for you and your case.
By way of full disclosure, I served as a public defender in the ARMY – as part of the JAG Corps. I learned to try cases from three senior "PDs" (we were called Trial Defense Counsel in the Army) who I would still rate in the top ten trial lawyers I have ever seen over my thirty year career. We were proud to serve as defense counsel and we never worried about how many hours were spent preparing for trial because we did not have to bill or collect from our clients. Uncle Sam paid us the same amount each month whether we spent forty or eighty hours a week working on our cases.
Here are three reasons you may want to stay with the public defender (and as I write this I realize this is "negative marketing" – as I am suggesting you may be better off not paying for your lawyer):
Reason 1 – your case may be more complex than your wallet’s ability to pay for counsel. Many criminal cases are incredibly complex, requiring analysis of many legal issues and factual considerations. I am in a case currently that involves over 100,000 pages of documents, each of which must be reviewed and analyzed. Reviewing documents takes time. Time is what we sell as private counsel – so you could expect that the more time we spend, the more the case costs. But a public defender in a complex case may be able to commit the same amount of time and resources to your complex case and not worry about collecting for his or her fees. If you are in a complex case, you need to ask your PD if they have the time to devote to your defense.
Reason 2 – that PD may have a better grasp of the law of your case and the local procedures than an inexperienced private counsel. When I first started practicing in Boise, I was hired to "birddog" a criminal case for a family with unlimited funds, who had been the victim of the crime at issue. I went to the Preliminary Hearing and when the Defendant waived, I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen. I had trial experience – couple murder cases included – but that experience was not "local." Another lawyer explained the result of the waiver and I was able to report accurately to my clients that the Defendant was headed toward arraignment. That Defendant had a public defender who breezed his way through the process because he had an intimate knowledge of the process – he was in court every day and understood exactly what was coming next.
My point here is that the PD CAN really serve a client’s best interests, in part because they have day in and day out experience in the courts.
Reason 3 – PDs are REAL LAWYERS! I used to really hate to hear this crap. Even in the military, a defendant can hire "private counsel" to handle a courts-martial. When I had this happen I usually felt relief and regret about the situation. Often I was happy to have another lawyer to come into the case and bring his or her experience to the defense of my client. Relief. The regret came with my own sense of pride in the job I could have done – after all – I was a REAL lawyer too! Still, in the end the decision needs to be made by the person facing the charges.
I want to add that the local PDs I interact with are generally GREAT lawyers. It’s true! They work hard, care about their cases and genuinely operate in the best interests of their clients.
So if you are happy with your Public Defender – you may be best to stay the course. If you want another opinion about your case, check with a private criminal defense lawyer, whether that is me or someone else. But in the end – understand that your right to have the effective assistance of a lawyer who is paid for at public expense is one of the most important protections available to any defendant in any court in this land.
Thanks for your service PDs.