I have a public defender, should I get a real lawyer? Which is better a paid attorney or a free attorney? The public defender works for the prosecutors don’t they?
If you hang around a courthouse long enough, you will hear these same questions, over and over, in various forms. The problem is that these thoughts all stem from the basic idea: that something that is free can’t be as good as something you pay for. Now, I won’t deny that there are many situations in the world, and in the law, where the phrase “you get what you pay for” is true, but this is not one of them.
First off, you need to realize that in any given group of people, whether it is 100 public defenders or 100 private attorneys, some will be better than others. There will always be bad apples in any group. There are certainly private attorneys who do a better job than some public defenders, but you better believe that there are a lot of public defenders who do a better job than a lot of private attorneys.
Qualification and Education: You need to start with an understanding that both PD’s and PA’s had to go through law school and take the exact same bar exam for their state. In fact, a lot of PA’s started out working, or interning, in the PD’s office. I myself worked as a student attorney while in law school. (some schools offer programs where 2nd and 3rd year law student’s can actually represent clients in court as long as they are actively supervised by a licensed attorney). So, from an education standpoint, both PD’s and PA’s start out on equal footing.
Once you accept that PD’s and PA’s are both qualified and barred attorneys, there are some significant differences that can affect your decision as to which one is better for your case.
Cost: Most people immediately go to the price as the main difference. Generally speaking, you will pay more for a PA than you will for a PD. However, you may not have a choice at all. PD’s have specific income requirements. If you make more than their maximum income, then they will turn you away so that they can fill that spot with a client who does meet their income requirements. If you do qualify, then you generally have to pay only an administrative fee, usually $25-$50. On the other hand, PA’s each charge differently. Most will charge you a flat fee up front, which will be based on the number and type of charges that you have. Some may also charge you more if you end up asking for a jury trial, because jury trials require much more time and preparation. Some PA’s do offer reduced fee arrangements, and maybe even free representation, in some situations.
Personal Attention: In my opinion, and that of almost every attorney I’ve ever spoken with about this, the biggest true difference between PD’s and PA’s is the amount of time they have to spend with YOU. PD’s typically have a massive case load. On a given day, while representing you, they may also be representing up to 15 other people at the same time. That doesn’t count the 15 they had the day before that, or the day before that. Note, this makes them very good at their job, but doesn’t give them much time to talk or meet with you. You may actually never meet your PD before your first hearing date, other than a phone consultation. On the flip side, PA’s represent far fewer clients at a time. This allows them time to meet with you well in advance of your hearing date, sometimes more than once, and give you a much more personal experience.
Time: In terms of time, I am referring to how soon you need to contact the attorney in advance of your hearing date. PD’s usually require you to sign up at least 10 days prior to your first hearing date, so that they have time to assign you to a lawyer and they can read your case file. PA’s on the other hand often take last minute clients, sometimes up to the hearing date, and then try to get a postponement because they were just hired. You should note however, that if you call a PA and tell them that your hearing date is tomorrow, and they have to rearrange their schedule to make it to your hearing, they will likely charge you more money for the rush.
Choice: Do you want a say in who your lawyer is? If you hire a PD, you are actually hiring the Office of the Public Defender. After you fill out your intake paperwork, you are assigned an attorney. They will most likely do a great job for you, but you may not have any choice as to which PD you get in a given office. On the other hand, there are 100’s if not 1000’s of PA’s in your area. You can call around and talk to several PA’s before you settle on which one you want to hire, whether it is because one charges a little less than another or because one sounds a little nicer. The basics are, you don’t have much choice in which PD you would get, but you have complete choice over which PA to hire.
Jurisdiction: PD’s and PA’s have much different lifestyles when it comes to where they practice law. Just like each County, and even each Court (District Court vs. Circuit Court), has its own set of prosecutors and judges, each one also has its own group of dedicated PD’s. PA’s, however, get to travel wherever they want. This creates positives and negatives for each group. Because a PD only works in one court in one county, they become very familiar with the prosecutors and judges in that courthouse. So, they may have a better relationship and know which arguments work better against a particular prosecutor. The bad part about that is that if you decide to request a jury trial, your case is likely transferred to the Circuit Court and you then have to be assigned a new PD for that court. Or, if you have the unlucky situation to have charges brought against you in two different counties, you would have a different PD for each charge. Conversely, PA’s are not restricted to one courthouse. That means that if you have charges in different counties, you only need one attorney to handle all of them. If your case moves from the District Court to the Circuit Court, you don’t need to change attorneys. If you lose and you need to appeal your case, your PA may actually be able to handle your appeal as well. The only negative, and it often doesn’t really matter, is that because they practice in many different courthouses, they may not be as familiar as a PD would be with the individual prosecutors or judges in a given court.
Assuming you qualify for a Public Defender to begin with, you are the only one who can make the decision as to which type of attorney is better for you in your situation. Each one has their positives and negatives. Just please don’t make the assumption that a Public Defender is not a real lawyer or that they are not a good attorney just because you don’t have to pay them that much. Trust me, I would not have any problems trusting my life to a public defender if given the choice.