Why are Public Defenders assumed to be incompetent?

I have been a public defender for nearly 14 years. I have turned down other jobs that would have paid more and been less work, but I keep doing what I’m doing because I like it and because I get to spend a lot of time in the courtroom, and if I do say so myself, I’m good at it.
I constantly run into people- including, unfortunately, clients- who think that because I’m a PD, I am either not really a lawyer or not a very good one. I’d be interested to know whether any of you have had an experience with a public defender or a court-appointed lawyer, and what your experience was- or if you haven’t had any such experience but have an opinion anyway, what is it and on what information are you basing it?

I don’t assume all PD’s are incompetent.

However - depending on how it works in your jurisidiction, it may factor in to how competent your defense is. In some areas, the county has a “PD” division, complete with investigators, and opperates like the PA’s office would (except they have the police force at their disposal). In my jurisidiction, attorneys are put on a list to get cases and are paid by the case, which amounts to very little. So, you end up only having attorneys that just graduated and haven’t developed a rep yet or ones that aren’t very good.

From what I’ve seen (I work with ex-offenders), many of them aren’t really very experienced. I remember being asked on the stand “did you have any conversations with (the defendant)”? and others asking about urinalysis process long after the courts had universally believed them. Shrug.

There are many excellent public defenders out there. I think the perception that they are incompetent attorneys is based on the fact that many public defenders are poorly paid. For example, I almost applied for a position with the Fayetteville, Arkansas public defender’s office…the pay for 19,500 a year and you were not allowed to work on outside cases for additional income (some jurisdictions allow this practice).

I just joined the working field as an attorney and I have a friend who is brilliant and doing PD work.

Honestly, though, I think the perception is based in some fact. PD jobs pay little and the top of the law school class typically isn’t drawn to these jobs. So you often get the lower 1/3 of the class taking these jobs - and a lot of them may not be all that bright. I think that’s part of the factual basis in the belief.

It is clearly an overstatement, on anyone’s behalf, to then make the jump to “All PDs are poor attorneys” in the same way that it is a jump to ask, “Why does everyone think that PDs are incompentent?” simply because a some people think that. Most people know better.

If you love what you do anyway, who the heck cares what they think?


Well, I used to be a true PD - never wanted to do anything else and even turned down offers from firms to work at a PD office. I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class and had lots of experience when I started at the PD office. After working at the PD’s office, I can see where the general perception comes from. For some reason the office I worked at seems to do what they can to attract candidates who are not exactly the brightest and the work environment was honestly aweful so the job started to become dreadful. It might have just been the office I worked at but it did ruin it for me. The only people I feel bad for are the clients because lots of very skilled and good attorneys leave that office for the exact same reason.

There’s also the very real issue that PD’s caseloads are much higher than private-practice attorneys, and so a time-consuming procedure or motion may suffer in detail because the PD cannot devote the nitpicky, over-Lexis-ed motion that a firm can muster the resources to draft.

PDs know the law in their area, but sometimes the practice of law is time-consuming, and time is a luxury they may not have.

For what it’s worth, public defenders get paid a bit more in Florida than the equivalent state attorneys (even the zombie ones). Of course, they don’t have even remotely comparable resources.

The good thing about zombie public defenders is that they are trying to get braaaiiinnns:eek:

IMO, Public Defenders do a lot of good and are underpaid. My best friend has to use them often and they work very hard to help him. I’ve always thought of PD’s as people who donate their time because they want justice to be served. Everyone who ends up in the legal system deserves someone on their side.

Based on my extensive experience watching Night Court, I know that public defenders are intelligent, forthright, willing to go to jail for their clients and just plain adorable. Based on my extensive experience watching Law and Order, I know that public defenders may look a little disheveled and haphazardly drop things, but that just sets up the big sucker punch where they pull a rabbit out of a hat and get the damning piece of evidence excluded. Of course, sometimes they’re only there to warm the seat for that week’s big guest star playing the role of scummy high-priced mouthpiece, but that’s OK, too. Someone’s gotta scoff at the ridiculously high bail demanded by the prosecutor, and you guys can scoff like champs!

I prosecute, so I see public defender people in court all the time. They are perfectly competent, subject to one issue.

Every now and then a complete idiot who would not survive in the private profession gets a job as a public defender and can’t easily be got rid of. The sort of person who just doesn’t “get” law, and who should go into some other line of business. But because they are in a job that is protected, they stumble along. Everyone (except them - they are usually insightless) knows who they are, and they don’t get promoted or get the landmark cases, but their presence, even though they are statistically insignificant, can poison perceptions for others.

People who can afford to hire their own defense attorneys do. And there a several high profile trials where the defendant was acquitted with the help of private counsel (OJ), so when it comes to PD it seems to people that with the law, you get what you pay for.

I don’t see it as bad attorneys as much as overworked and/or unconcerned. In a lot of big urban areas it’s common that the defendants don’t even meet their PD attorney till the first day of their trial.

Also since they are being paid, if they win or lose, this brings on the notion they don’t really care much, and couple that with a lot of cases on their plates at once, it’s not hard to see where that opinion comes from

I see it come up very often in media from the US, but IME it’s nowhere near as common in other countries, plus again IME it’s hyped by the media, which in turn will lead to making it grow among the kind of people who think “I saw it on TV!” is the ultimate line of reasoning. Maybe another part of it is the notion of “you get what you pay for therefore if you’re not being billed for it, it’s worthless” - which is stronger in the US than in these other countries where I see it (in reality and in media) a lot less.

This second part would lead people with that particular mindset to thinking that a doctor who isn’t billing you can’t be trusted / isn’t a real doctor / can’t be as good as one who bills you, or that private schools are always better than public ones.

Private criminal defense attorneys also get paid whether they win or lose. You are probably thinking of plaintiffs’/claimants’ attorneys in civil claims, who work on a contingency basis.

I am a public defender. I can honestly say I think it totally varies from state to state, and office to office.

My office has a particularly good reputation in the legal community. We quite often have the children of law enforcement and other attorneys, come to our office for internships and/or just to shadow us to get an idea of what it is like to “be a lawyer.” We have a number of resources, including our own investigator, sentencing advocate, and any number of interns/paralegals. And my salary (factoring in benefits and pension), is maybe, 10K less than my friends in private practice…

I think the perception is exactly what some of you said, that only the kids in the bottom third of the law school class are looking to be a Public Defender, and maybe only then, as a last resort. And that may have been true, five to ten years ago. Because of the economy, this is changing, fast. We just did a round of interviews, and these kids’ resumes would blow mine out of the water…

I will say that the skills required to make an excellent trial attorney, i.e., natural charm, quick thinking, a smidge of arrogance… these are not things learned in law school, and no amount of law review accolades will make you a good trial attorney. Anyway…

Quite frankly, I think the biggest issue that causes misperceptions for folks who are actually engaging the services of defense attorneys… returning phone calls. Time. We do not have the time to hold our client’s hand through the process. We just don’t.

There is not a single private attorney who knows how to handle a juvenile case in my jurisdiction better than me. Full stop. I am not bragging. This is fact. I know this because I field phone calls on a weekly basis giving advice to some of the highest paid private attorneys in the state, re: juvenile cases in our County.

I have had a few juvenile clients tell me that I was awesome, and I should really think about going to law school to become a real attorney because I’m just that good. :slight_smile:

When I was with the prosecutor’s office, I worked with a number of attorneys in public defense/legal aid. Most of them were extremely competent and dedicated to their job. Even four years out of that line of work, I still see quite a few of those same PDs that are still going strong.

All that said, here are a number of reasons why it can seem that PDs are incompetent:

  1. PDs are paid for shit. If you had the choice between PD and law firm and money was a huge factor in your choice, you’d to be insane to pick the PD’s office. So even if you wanted to go into public service, law school debts and other factors could significantly sway you to reconsider. This means that lots of good, qualified people will never consider public defense. This in turn means that those who are left over disproportionately could not secure offers in law firms making real money

  2. PDs are paid for shit. All I can compare it to is our prosecutor’s office and our PD, but I know for certain our starting salary and step-scale was better than the PD. So even if you really wanted public service (but also wanted to earn some money), the prosecutor’s office was a better choice.

  3. PDs are overworked. Ever go into a courtroom where a defendant doesn’t have legal representation yet? The judge will grant a two month extension on his case because it’s going to take six weeks before the PD’s caseload clears up to the point where the defendant can even be seen! I don’t think it’s possible to provide stellar work for every single person you represent when you’ve got that sort of backlog to work through.

  4. Trials are time consuming. Prosecutors throw out an offer and the PDs oftentimes accept. In general, these may be pretty good offers. In general it’ll be worth it for a defendant to jump on it. In general, it clears up the docket and most people come out ok on it. But, in particular cases, because the PDs are so overworked and simply don’t have the time to spend on any given case, there are going to be instances where defendants who really are innocent or really don’t deserve the excessive punishment being allocated will accept a plea agreement anyway. It’s those particulars that give the whole of the PD office a bad rep.

For what it’s worth - the DC public defender’s office is incredibly competitive. I would compare it to a BigLaw firm in that regard. I’m not a PD, but my understanding is that you really want to be a Spanish-speaking top-third law school graduate with appropriate internships and (preferably) a judicial clerkship to be a serious candidate. Sure, the money is crud, but there are plenty of folks who went to law school to do precisely this.

There’s also a federal public defender’s service, which is also very highly competitive. A have a friend in one office, working death penalty cases. If I were facing the needle, I’d want her over all the high-priced BigLaw drones money could buy.

How is it that you don’t have time to return calls from your client, but you do have time to regularly give advice to other lawyers?

Also, based on very little actual knowledge, my perception is that a lawyer with political ambitions is much better served by going into the prosecutor’s office.

This is the one I was going to mention-it’s incredibly competitive. I have two friends who went into this program and they are well on their way to becoming law professors in the long-term.

I spent my first summer externing in criminal and decided it wasn’t for me. And while I can’t speak for PDs, my experience in the federal sector (where I also regulated a number of states and had to work with their attorneys) is that it’s easy to burn out on the career/your employers but still retain your job because of how the public sector is structured. I knew after 5 years that I was heading for burnout because my employer’s penchant for inefficiency just wore me out, so I left to do something I was more passionate about. Unfortunately, the burnouts overshadow the people who are dedicated, passionate and good at their jobs for obvious reasons. Additionally, the legal profession makes it hard to switch fields and areas of interest, or even go from the public sector to the private sector, and believe it or not, vice versa (I always greatly enjoyed the BigLaw people thinking they could just waltz in and have a job handed to them on a platter), so you get these disgruntled and/or incompetents weighing down the perception of your field over time. It took me a year to set up quitting law for something else and even thinking about that year makes me feel tired-it can be hard to do, especially if you already invested time, money and energy in your law degree.