Working With a Public Defender


As you remember, you have the right to an attorney and if you cannot afford one, the court will appoint one for you. This means that each jurisdiction has to make arrangements to provide such lawyers, usually by maintaining a public defender’s office. There will also be a system for supplying additional lawyers when the public defender’s office has too many cases or a conflict of interest. In this situation, the court will typically appoint an attorney from a panel of private lawyers or a designated law office. (These might be called “panel attorneys,” “conflicts attorneys,” “court-appointed attorneys,” “alternate defenders,” etc.)

To get the best possible service from a public defender, you need to understand the breed. First, there are easier and more profitable positions for law school graduates than working as a public defender. There’s a myth that being a public defender is a kind of internship or mandatory service period—some people even imagine that you have to be a public defender first, in order to become a prosecutor. The truth is that getting a job in a public defender’s office can be highly competitive in some areas of the country—many offices can take their pick of the top students from the best law schools, and there are sometimes several hundred applicants for a single position. Few public defenders ever switch sides and become prosecutors. People who become prosecutors are usually either law-and-order types, or beginning lawyers who just want to get lots of trial experience quickly. People who become public defenders normally take the job because they really want to help low-income people and keep them out of jail.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t public defenders who are incompetent, lazy, or mean. It’s just that you’re as likely to encounter bad private attorneys as bad public defenders. The real difference between public defenders and private attorneys is the number of clients they handle. Public defenders have huge caseloads, much larger than that of private criminal defense attorneys. Also, public defenders’ offices have relatively limited budgets for hiring investigators and expert witnesses. So most public defenders can’t give their clients as much personal attention as they’d like, or prepare every case for trial as well as they’d prefer.1 You’ll usually see the public defenders in court with heaps of file folders stacked on the defense table, each of which relates to a different client who must be taken care of that day.2

So your mission, if you’re working with a public defender, is to make it clear that you’re a client who can really be helped, someone who’s worth extra time and effort. Here’s how to do it:

Make a good first impression: Public defenders are used to assessing people very quickly—they have to be, because they often deal with dozens of clients every day. You may have only a few minutes to prove that you are a person who deserves special attention.

Be polite: One of the tougher aspects of being a public defender is that most of their clients are dubious about the public defender’s skills and motives. In fact, some clients are downright rude. This is understandable, since most people aren’t at their best when they’ve just been arrested, spent the night in jail, are facing criminal charges, and are stuck with a lawyer they didn’t get to choose. However, it won’t help you to take it out on your public defender. You’ve got to make nice if you want the best service.

Show that you want to win: Because most criminal defendants feel helpless and confused, many of them end up appearing rather passive. And a client who seems not to care isn’t likely to inspire his public defender. Whether you’re looking for the best possible plea bargain, or hoping to win at trial, you need to demonstrate to your lawyer that you’ve got the energy it takes to do the job. Look earnest. Show that you’ve got both fighting spirit and self-control.

Dress conservatively: Your lawyer will be wondering whether you have good enough judgment to perform well at trial, and one indicator of this is what you wear to court (assuming you’re not coming from jail). You should put together an extremely conservative outfit—the kind you’d see on a bank teller. Don’t dress in casual clothes like baggy pants, jeans or t-shirts. Don’t have on anything at all sexy. Women should wear only a minimum of jewelry and men shouldn’t wear any. Leave out piercings other than earrings, and take off any removable tooth decorations, like gold fronts.3

Don’t get drunk or high before court or meetings: Court hearings and meetings with lawyers are stressful, so sometimes people take the edge off their discomfort by self-medicating. Your lawyer will almost always be able to tell if you’re in an altered state. And he’s likely to feel that if you show up to a hearing or a meeting that way, then you must have a really severe substance abuse problem that would make it pretty hard to work closely with you or get through a trial successfully.

Help with the work: Most defendants don’t do much to help themselves, so it may take your lawyer by surprise that you’re ready to dig in and work on the case. If your lawyer’s doing a good job, she’ll explain what you can do to be of genuine assistance. Ask whether she’d like you to take on any of the following tasks:

    •  Create a list of potential witnesses (eye witnesses and 
       character witnesses). Supply complete addresses, 
       phone numbers, and background information about 
       each individual, with good notes about what the witness 
       can say on your behalf. (See Sample Witness List)

    •  Make a time line of what happened, with dates and times of 
       day, as appropriate. (See Sample Time Line)

    •  Draw diagrams of the scene of the incident, with actual 
       measurements, if possible. (See Sample Diagram)

    •  Set up an appointment to sit down with your lawyer and go 
       over the police report page by page, looking for 
       contradictions and lies.

    •  If drug or alcohol treatment would be useful to you, research 
       local programs and interview with the ones that seem best. 
       A letter of acceptance from a treatment center may be of 
       great value in getting a good plea bargain.

    •  If you anticipate pleading guilty, especially to misdemeanor 
       charges, look into non-profit agencies through which you 
       might do community service. Get a letter from the 
       organization saying that they’d really appreciate your 
       help with a particular project or task.

If your lawyer doesn’t look impressed by your first efforts at making a witness list, time-line, or similar notes, get her to tell you what has to be done to fix them. Write a second draft and show it to her again. This is a learning process—you’re not expected to be great at it right from the start. Also, delivering a new (or revised) document to your attorney once a week is a good way to keep her focused on your case.

If you’re not in jail, do whatever it takes to type your notes to your lawyer, instead of writing them by hand. He’ll understand them faster and better that way. You want him to spend his time working on your case, not deciphering your handwriting.

Read over the section Having a Productive Meeting With Your Lawyer, and bring this book with you when you meet with your attorney. Ask questions and take notes. If your lawyer doesn’t think the questions are relevant, find out what she feels you should be concentrating on.

Note: all of the above suggestions apply even if you’ve got a private attorney. You’ll almost always be happier with the results when you work closely with your lawyer and take an active role in fighting your case. 


1.  This applies to most public defenders working in county or state courts.  However, federal defenders, who represent low-income defendants in federal court, have fairly reasonable case loads and resources.

2.  On the bright side, public defenders become quite familiar with the local judges and prosecutors, and can make very accurate predictions about how they'll behave.

3.  This isn't meant to cramp your style or stifle your soul.  If you're a criminal defendant, the courtroom is hostile ground -  and in enemy territory, soldiers who want to survive wear camouflage.