Public Defender vs "Real" Lawyer

You’re accused of a crime. You didn’t do it, but you can’t afford a lawyer, so you get the dreaded public defender. Sorry if this ruffles any feathers, but I’d pack my bags for a l o n g vacation. Not asking if any of you have been in this position, just want to know if you agree or disagree with me? If I had to have a p.d. I think I would get VERY involved in my case, or maybe I’ve seen too much TV and I’ve become jaded in our judicial system. What do y’all think?


You’ve seen too much T.V.

I work for a Public Defender’s office, and for the most part, Public Defenders work very hard at a job that few people would ever want. They know criminal law inside and out, and try their damnedest, even though most of them also have very heavy caseloads.

I think that one of the reasons that PD’s get such a bad rap is because they so rarely win. But really, it isn’t the PD’s fault. Prosecutors always win more than public defenders because, frankly, it’s likely that the public defender’s client committed the crime.

“Long vacation”? You may want to start packing your bags before Jodi sees this.

The most glaring problem with your OP is that it relies on some broad generalizations that simply do not work in every jurisdiction throughout the country.

Texas, for example, has a bit of a scandal going (alongside their propensity for executing anyone with the bad luck to be accused of a serious crime) because in a number of circuit(?) courts, the closest one gets to a “public defender” is whichever good ol’ boy the judge happens to owe for the last barbecue. This, however, tends to happen more in the outlying districts and less in Houston or Dallas.

The study of problems regarding the death penalty that was released last year noted that one of the really bad problems that guys on death row had encountered was that they were brought to trial with the attitude you expressed, went and found a lawyer on their own instead of relying on the Public Defender’s office, wound up getting a second-rate lawyer (because they could not afford better), and were convicted–in jurisdictions where the local Public Defender’s office had an excellent record of defending capital cases.

In other words, fearing the myth of the bad Public Defender, they passed up the use of an excellent service.

I am fairly sure that a survey of many Public Defender offices probably would turn up a good deal of uneven quality. Local conditions play a big part in any situation.

As stated in the OP, however, the general disdain toward Public Defenders is not warranted.

Hey, we don’t kill every defendant accused of a serious crime down here, tom. Every once in a while the U.S. Supreme Court steps in and tells the Court of Criminal Appeals that they’re not constitutionally required to execute every defendant who comes their way. :wink:

Dallas County, incidentally, is one of a tiny handful of counties in Texas that has a public defenders’ office. Almost all the other counties rely, as you said, on appointments made by the trial court judge. Assuming that the judge appoints a comptetent criminal attorney, I actually kinda like that system, since it spreads the caseload wider than in the typical P.D.'s office elsewhere. And as tom and Moebius both pointed out, P.D.'s tend to be extremely dedicated people, whose main problem is a sometimes unmanageable caseload.


Former PD here.

I don’t think the problem lies with a public defender, in general. While we had big caseloads, rarely were they unmanageable. And we got good deals for our clients, either by bargaining or by rolling dice at trial. Quite a few people in the two counties I worked got acquittals that they … ahem… perhaps my not have deserved.

I think the public defenders usually get an undeserved bad rap. In fact, I left the job in large measure because I was no longer comfortable with being effective in the role of gaining acquittals for people who perhaps could have benefitted from incarceration.

  • Rick

In places that actually have a Public Defender"s Office, does the PDO receive funding equal to the District Attorney’s Office?

Forgive my poor phrasing if I’m getting the terminology wrong; basically does the court-appointed public defense have equal access to resources as the prosecution?

ExTank, probably not, due to the fact that most defendants use a private attorney. If PDO’s and DA’s had equal resources, the DA would have fewer. But perhaps you have a good idea, ensure that for every case a PDO gets, make sure that they have equal funding for the case as the DA has.

No, but let’s keep in mind that there is no constitutional right to equal funding. The accused gets to go free if the state fails to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The accused is entitled to a new trial if the first one is found unfair; the state is never entitled to a new trial if the unfairness cuts against it. In other words, there are already many advantages to being a defendant.

The right that is guaranteed is that of a fair trial. If you have a particular theory which would require expert analysis, you could always move for funding. If you can show a compelling need for experts that aren’t in your budget, you can still possibly get it.

Rare? Sure it is. But it’s rarer still to be in a position to legitimately need it. Keeping in mind that I never did capital cases, most of the evidence I dealt with was witness testimony and fruits of searches. When I did have cases where… er… bodily fluids were involved, keep in mind this was before the age of widespread DNA testing. About all you could tell was blood type and secretor status – and if we got to trial, it was pretty useless to have an expert of my own to repeat what the Commonwealth’s expert was goign to say on cross: my guy was the possible source, but he wasn’t sure it was him.

  • Rick

Since when am I the designated ass-kicker?

I never did PD work because I knew I didn’t have the fortitude for it. It’s hard work; usually done for crappy pay; sometimes emotionally difficult; and very often thankless. And you get to see the same sort of people – and often the same exact people – over and over – people who are too dumb or lazy or addicted or just plain antisocial to refrain from running afoul of the law. (Correct me if I’m wrong in any of this, BRICKER.)

I do think it is an unfounded stereotype that PDs are incompetent. Most of them are very competent – far more so than appointed outside counsel who does not generally practice criminal law. It is true that there are usually some inexperienced, as opposed to incompetent, lawyers in PD’s offices – just as there are usually inexperienced lawyers in the DA’s office. Every lawyer starts out as inexperienced. It is also true that in some larger jurisdictions – major cities – the PDs are extremely over-worked, with enormous caseloads and the consequent inability to handle cases optimally. But that does not render their representation ineffective.

I think that a non-lawyer who imagines he can defend himself better than a licensed appointed PD is dreaming. Be involved in your defense if you want – I know I would be – but it strikes me as plain silly to decline counsel just because you assume, without any evidence, that counsel is going to be incometent.

I am a Public Defender and I have been for nearly 14 years. And, for the record, I AM a real lawyer. I have had more than my fair share of acquittals, and I filed a motion that resulted in new defense-oriented search and seizure law in the state where I practice. I think a lot of the reason that there is negative perception of PDs is that we tend not to sugar-coat things for our clients. I have heard “real” lawyers guarantee results for a defendant, or exaggerate the strength of the defense case to get the person to hire them. I never do that. I am always honest with clients about their cases, and I always tell them up front what the maximum penalty for their charges is.

 Don't forget that a PD does nothing but criminal work, keeps updated on new caselaw, knows the judges and the prosecutors better than any other attorneys. So if you can't afford a "real" lawyer, you are probably better off.

 My $0.02.

Sadly, you’re right on the money. I think people - I did, anyway - enter the job believing they can really make a difference. It’s an important job, and I have the greatest respect for those that continue to do it, but I found, after a while, that I wasn’t making much of a difference.

Or more accurately – that the difference I was making was in the wrong direction.

  • Rick

I am not a lawyer, but I have paid them a lot of money, and you know what, I don’t regret paying any of it. You get what you pay for , I think PD’s are a great asset to the American public, I believe that even the lowest of the low deserve a fair trial and a good defense, but like I said you get what you pay for, like Johnnie Cochran said in an interview “People ask me, what’s the color of justice, well the color of justice is not black or white, the color of justice is green”.

Everybody talks bad about lawyers, that is until they need one.

In some areas, as has been commented on by the esteemed legal community here, PD’s can often be inexperienced, overworked etc.

If there’s a PD office, then you have specific folks who are working together, able to consult with each other and probably have some supportive services (such as aides and investigators) this is a good thing.

In my area, there is no PD office, lawyers can sign up for PD work, and get cases assigned to them . they are most often paid on a ‘per case’ basis.

The net effect is that for many of the folks around, they get inexperienced lawyers who are fresh out of law school, hanging up their preverbial shingle and trying to make a go of it by developing a client base off of the subgroup of criminal population “those who don’t have money”.

I think this is a less than optimal set up. They do however, assign a class A attorney for high profile cases (anyone remember the “Burning Bed” case? that was local here and I believe was done on a PD basis)

(not a lawyer, but work with convicts)


Fourteen years? Considering how high the burnout rate is for PD work, and how hard the work is, I give you what I think the hep youngsters call “mad props” for this.

I believe that’s how they talk when they’re not making out in the rumple seat or doing the Charleston. :wink:

And even the “real” lawyers occasionally get it wrong. My ex-husband’s lawyer so botched his client’s defense that it’s going to take a miracle just to get him out of prison.
See this thread for details.
(and Bricker, I know you and I have conversed on this before, but it’s my position that a little more work and a little less hubris could’ve kept the guy out of prison.)

And like the PDs of the OP, some prosecutors are cut from the same cloth. This isn’t based on any actual prosecutors, but it is human nature. For any given profession, there are as many motives for being in that profession as there are people practicing it.


I do some Crown work from time to time, and would agree with what the others have said about the merits of state-funded counsel (we call it Legal Aid up here). The Legal Aid lawyers I know are specialists, who do nothing but criminal work; are in an office, with other Legal Aid lawyers, to provide group support and advice; and are very dedicated to their job. I have heard full-time Crowns say that they would much rather work with a Legal Aid lawyer - not because they’re push-overs (they certainly aren’t), but because they know the law and have a good estimate of the merits of the case. They don’t waste time, and provide excellent service to their clients.

I guess I’m the flip side of jti, for I do legal aid defence work. I hold the same opinion as jti for the same reasons.

I look at the criminal lawyers of our local bar as sharks swimming about in a pond. One looks at another, and thinks “Hmm, I think I’d like to take a bite out of you,” then swims about for a while longer, and thinks “Hmm, but you might bite me back,” and then continues to swim about. Eventually a big fat fish comes along (a high profile case with a cash client), and the feeding frenzy begins.

It can be a long time between rich individual meals. During these periods, the sharks stuff themselves with little legal aid cases. Day after day after day, they hone their teeth on publicly funded sardines. They teeth are very sharp. They know the law, they know the crowns, they know the judges, the know the politics. They take all these factors and play with the system until the optimal result becomes available, and then they move on it.

In a field where specialized, localized experience is so incredibly valuable, legal aid lawyers tend to be the ones with that experience.

There are some stats in the Playboy I got today- it seems like you are more likely to get a prison sentence with a PD. I’ll try to look them up when I get home,but I am sure mine is not the only copy out there. :smiley:

And, of course, correlating PDs and prison sentences would have nothing to do with how frequently PD clients are actually guilty, right?

Reminds me of the “exposé” that a local rag ran on hospitals a few years ago. They found that one particular hospital organization had more on-site deaths than any two other hospitals in the entire region. In fact, the organization had two hospitals, and one of them had three times the deaths of the other.
(They “forgot” to mention in the article that the hospital with the highest number of “patient deaths” was the only hospital in the region (at that time) that had an active hospice program and that it was housed at the hospital while they built a separate facility for it.)

I wonder if there are statistics on PD clients who draw prison time to avoid a trial?