Public Defender or “Paid Lawyer”?
During my career as a Criminal Defense Investigator, I have been tasked with listening to countless hours of jail phone call recordings made by my client’s. Some of them were made just after they were arrested and finding out what charges they either had or suspected they would have. Many of their conversations are about obtaining legal counsel and how they have heard they better go with a “paid lawyer” and not a public defender. Names get thrown around and instructions are given to contact this lawyer or that lawyer to find out how much their services would cost. Occasionally, a name gets mentioned and the defendant says something to the effect of “No, he’s not a lawyer. He is a public defender”. Or, sometimes it is something like “I don’t want no public defender. I want a real lawyer”.
So, I feel the need to set the record straight about the differences between a “paid lawyer” and a public defender. Because there seems to be a fair amount of confusion as to what these terms really mean.
The Public Defender
First and foremost, public defenders ALL went to law school, graduated and passed the bar exam! Often, in the higher percentiles of their classes and even scored higher on the bar exam than many “paid lawyers”. There are public defender’s that have even graduated from ivy league schools such as Harvard or Stanford that chose to work for a public defender’s office because of one reason or another. Some out of a strong commitment to public service and others, possibly, because they just want to practice criminal law and not have to worry about the headache of running a business.
As a public defender, they spend every day working with one goal in mind; to obtain the best outcome possible for their clients. And most days those clients can number in the dozens. They work long hours with meager salaries compared to many other attorney’s in private practice (Not to say private attorneys do not work long hours too). They do not do this work to get rich. I have seen public defenders go way beyond their job description by buying clothing with their own money so their clients are able to dress appropriately in court. And even go see the client’s on their birthdays.
Public defenders have also been accused of being on the side of the prosecutors since they, along with the district attorneys, are government employees. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, tax dollars do pay both of their salaries, but they have two opposing interests. The district attorneys are there to prosecute and represent their client (the government) and to pursue justice for the victim(s) of whatever crime has been committed. The public defender is there to protect the rights of the accused and to advise them on their case with the hopes of obtaining the best possible outcome. Sometimes that means fighting the case at trial and other times it is to negotiate the best deal they can for the client through plea agreements. This sometimes means they will have a friendly working relationship with the prosecutors whose goal it is to see the defendant convicted and often sent to prison. This is to the benefit of the defendant since plea deals are sometimes in the client’s best interest rather than face a trial where the outcome might be far worse.
Private Attorney a.k.a “Paid Lawyer”
Most often when people speak of “paid lawyers”, they are referring to an attorney that is in private practice. One that a defendant can hire to represent them and is not appointed by the court. Most private attorney’s do more than just criminal defense and, in fact, some do very little. The ones that do, also tend to take cases such as personal injury, civil litigation, estate or other types of law. However, some attorneys specialize in criminal defense and are exceptionally skilled when it comes to the law and arguing a case before a jury. They are often the most well-known attorney’s around town because when someone gets arrested and can afford to hire them, it tends to make the news and they hire the “big guns” to defend them.
Private attorneys most often bill in two different ways: hourly or a flat fee. Meaning, the client pays for the amount of time the attorney works on their case and they bill in 6 minute increments. This requires a “retainer” which is a set amount of money paid upfront that they then deduct from as they work through the case. Most attorney hourly rates are in the hundreds of dollars or more. In a flat fee scenario, they agree to take on a case for a set amount of money. For example, they may charge $10,000 to handle a case if it does not go to trial. If it does go to trial, which is ultimately the client’s choice, the defendant must be prepared to shell out a much larger sum.
Private attorneys tend to take on less cases than public defenders which allows them to devote more time to a case and ensure they are providing the best possible defense for their client’s. This is the biggest difference between a “paid lawyer” and a public defender. It is not that they are “better” lawyers or that the end result for the client will be any different. I have seen public defenders get not guilty verdicts for their clients or get the charges dismissed many times. And I have seen private attorneys, who have been paid thousands of dollars, that have lost at trial and seen their clients escorted off to serve life sentences.
When a defendant is declared indigent and the Public Defender’s office cannot take a case due to a conflict of some sort, the court then will appoint a private attorney to represent them. These attorneys agree to take appointed cases and do so at a reduced rate from their normal hourly rates. So, a private attorney that costs as much as $500 per hour had the defendant hired them to represent them, they now get for free. In some cases that is. It is up to the court who they appoint and the defendant does not get to choose.
During my career, I have worked for both state and federal public defender offices and I have also worked privately with “paid lawyers”. And I can assure you, they almost always do what is right for their clients regardless if they are being paid by the defendant or by the court.
We’ve all heard the old adage “you get what you pay for” but it does not always apply when it comes to legal representation (unless we are talking only private attorney’s. Then it matters more). If you choose to hire a private attorney and can afford to do so, great! But do so just like you would hire anyone else to do work for you. Meet with several to find out more about them and their experience. Ask questions specific to your case and find out how they would represent you based on the knowledge that you have at the time of your charges and the specific facts. If you can’t afford an attorney and are appointed a public defender, do not assume that means that you are not going to get a top notch legal defense just because you are not paying for their services.