I've been assigned a public defender. Is she a real lawyer? Should I ask another lawyer about the soundness of her advice?
Public defenders are, indeed, real lawyers. They went to law school and passed their state's bar exam, just like all attorneys must do.
Despite the increasingly severe fiscal constraints on their offices, public defenders usually provide representation that is at least as competent as that provided by private defense attorneys. This was demonstrated by a 1992 study conducted by the National Center for State Courts entitled, “Indigent Defenders Get the Job Done and Done Well.” The study concluded that public defenders and private counsel achieve approximately equal results. For example, in the nine counties surveyed in the study, 76% of public defender clients were convicted, compared to 74% of private counsel clients. A 2012 study came to a similar conclusion regarding conviction and sentencing outcomes between private attorneys and public defenders. (Thomas Cohen, Who's Better at Defending Criminals?, Crim. Just. Policy Rev. (2012).)
Additionally, public defender jobs tend to be so competitive that public defense offices can select highly qualified attorneys. True, many public defenders stay for a few years, gain intensive experience, and then leave for the supposedly greener pastures of private practice. However, most public defense offices offer excellent training programs, so that even recently arrived public defenders can rapidly build expertise. Also, public defenders often appear in the same courtrooms day in and day out and, therefore, know their way around the courthouse better than other criminal defense attorneys in the area. In some large metropolitan areas (in California and New York, for example), the public defense offices are highly respected, giving their clients representation that only a highly-experienced (and expensive) private attorney could match.
Despite these good points, the reality remains that indigent defense programs suffer from underfunding and high caseloads.
Too much work, not enough money. Regardless of the competence of individual court-appointed attorneys, they are often asked to perform too much work for not enough money. This is especially true of public defender programs. Local politicians don’t win many votes by expanding the budget for court-appointed lawyers to keep up with the growth in criminal prosecutions. For example, courts in Louisiana and Minnesota have ruled that the system of free legal defense services is so badly underfunded that it is unconstitutional. And, in a California case, Williams v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. Rptr. 2d 832 (1996), the court noted that a deputy public defender was representing 21 defendants whose cases were already beyond the time limit to take them to trial—yet the public defender remained eligible for additional assignments.
Contract attorneys vs. public defenders. Public defenders represent just one type of indigent defense program. Other types include the use of contract attorneys or panel attorneys. Public defenders are often salaried, government employees, whereas contract and panel attorneys are private attorneys who take cases on a contract basis. While studies show similar case outcomes between public defenders and private attorneys, the same is not necessarily true for contract or panel attorneys. For those jurisdictions that employ contract or panel attorneys, each does so differently. But often the court has a list of private attorneys that can be called upon to represent defendants for a certain rate. These contract systems are criticized for using less-experienced attorneys and, in some jurisdictions, incentivizing attorneys to churn through cases as quickly as possible to keep costs low. However, in some jurisdictions, panel attorneys tend to be experienced private criminal defense lawyers who take on indigent clients to supplement their work.
One key fact to remember: criminal defense attorneys are there to fight for you. And no matter if your attorney is a private, public, or contract attorney, they all have the same legal and ethical obligations to their clients. Learn more about getting a lawyer for your criminal case in these additional Nolo articles.