Public Defender

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Duties: Provide legal counsel and representation for indigent defendants; prepare for court trials; perform legal tasks as required

Alternate Title(s): A title that reflects a specific job such as Federal Defender or Juvenile Defender

Salary Range: $43,000 to $66,000

Employment Prospects: Good

Advancement Prospects: Poor


Education or Training - A law (J.D.) degree

Experience - One or more years as a practicing lawyer; criminal trial experience preferred

Special Skills and Personality Traits - Legal writing, advocacy, communication, presentation, and self-management skills; be optimistic, determined, aggressive, independent, creative, sympathetic

Special Requirements - States require lawyers to be admitted to their state bar; federal courts require registration for lawyers to practice


Law Student or Lawyer  >>  Assistant Public Defender  >>  Supervising or Managing Public Defender

Position Description

Public Defenders are criminal lawyers employed by the government to represent indigent (or poor) defendants. In the United States, persons who are accused of committing a crime that is punishable by prison or jail have the constitutional right to be defended by a lawyer. If they cannot afford to hire a private lawyer, the judge may appoint a lawyer - a Public Defender - to represent them.

Public Defenders carry heavy caseloads that include clients charged with misdemeanor and felony crimes. They may be appointed to serve adult or juvenile offenders. In some jurisdictions, Public Defenders are also assigned to represent the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled in civil commitment proceedings. For example, a Public Defender might represent a developmentally disabled woman who was involuntarily placed in a residential facility and wishes to be released.

Like private criminal lawyers, Public Defenders are obligated to provide each of their clients with the best legal defense that they can. They also ensure that their clients’ constitutional rights are not being compromised.

Throughout their workdays, they handle various cases that are at different stages of the criminal process. For example, Public Defenders:

• assess newly assigned cases

• attend arraignments and hearings

• negotiate plea bargains with the prosecuting attorneys

• prepare for trials, which includes tasks such as interviewing clients and witnesses, visiting crime scenes, preparing exhibits, developing defense strategies, and so on

• perform legal research

• participate in the selection of jury members for trials

• try court cases

In large offices, Public Defenders may be assigned to handle different stages of the criminal procedure for all cases. For example, new Public Defenders may be responsible for arraignment hearings or assessing cases, while experienced appellate lawyers handle appeals cases.

Public defender programs are established at local, state, and federal levels. In large metropolitan areas, the public defender office may be part of the city or county government. In rural areas and small counties, solo practitioners or private law firms are contracted to provide public defender services.

The head of public defender programs is actually called the Public Defender. They oversee the day-to-day administration and management of their programs. They also educate the public about the role of the Public Defender. Depending on their staffing needs, they may or may not represent indigents. Chief Public Defenders are either appointed or elected into office. They serve a limited term upon which they may be reappointed or reelected.

Serving under the chief Public Defender are the staff attorneys, often known as assistant Public Defenders or deputy Public Defenders. Their positions are rarely in jeopardy when new Public Defenders are appointed or elected.


Salaries for Public Defenders vary, depending on their education, geographical location, and other factors. According to the 2006 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report by NALP, the median salaries for Public Defenders ranged from $43,300 (for entry-level lawyers) to $65,500 (for lawyers with 11 to 15 years experience).

Employment Prospects

Most opportunities become available as Public Defenders resign, transfer to other positions, or retire. Employers create additional positions to meet growing needs as long as funding is available.

Advancement Prospects

Public Defenders can advance to a limited number of supervisory and administrative positions. Those in top positions typically spend less time in litigation. Many career Public Defenders pursue advancement by seeking more complex assignments, earning higher wages, and receiving professional recognition.

The Public Defender position has been the starting point of many lawyers’ careers. After working in a Public Defender’s office for a few years, many lawyers seek employment with law firms, corporate legal departments, or other government agencies. Some start practices in criminal law as solo practitioners or as heads of small law firms.

Education and Training

Employers require that Public Defenders have a juris doctor (J.D.) degree, preferably from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. New Public Defenders receive initial training on the job. Many employers also have ongoing training programs.

Special Requirements

To practice law in a state (or U.S. territory or Washington, D.C.), lawyers must first gain admission to that state’s bar. For specific eligibility information, contact the bar admission office for the jurisdiction where you wish to practice. To practice in federal courts, attorneys must apply for admission. Each court has its own set of requirements.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Many employers require or strongly prefer candidates with one or more years of experience in the practice of law. They particularly look for lawyers with criminal trial experience. In addition, good candidates demonstrate a commitment to public service.

Public Defenders have excellent legal writing and advocacy skills, as well as superior communication and presentation skills. In addition, they have strong self-management skills - the ability to manage heavy caseloads, prioritize and organize tasks, work well under stress, and so forth.

Being optimistic, determined, aggressive, independent, creative, and sympathetic are a few personality traits that successful Public Defenders share. Furthermore, they are dedicated to the concept of the right to counsel for all people.

Unions and Associations

Public Defenders are typically members of their local and state bar associations as well as national bars such as the American Bar Association. Many belong to bar associations that specifically serve the interests of criminal defense lawyers or Public Defenders, such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, or the Association of Federal Defense Attorneys. By joining professional associations, Public Defenders take advantage of professional services, professional resources, and networking opportunities.

Tips for Entry

1. To gain experience as an undergraduate or a law student, obtain internship or volunteer positions in a Public Defender office.

2. Attend conferences and meetings for Public Defenders and network with participants.

3. Contact Public Defender offices directly for information about vacancies and hiring procedures.  

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