Attorneys in these federal, state and locally funded offices serve as court-appointed counsel for indigent persons in criminal cases. If you are looking for trial experience, a public defender office is a terrific place to find it. Since public defender offices must accept cases referred to them by the courts, case loads are often heavy leading to a greater possibility for trials. Training varies depending on the office, but it is frequently gained through experience. New attorneys are expected to begin representing clients soon after being hired and trained. Public defenders quickly assume responsibility for all phases of motion practice and legal research and writing, as well as strategizing, interviewing clients and witnesses preparing and conducting pretrial hearings and trials, plea bargaining and conducting investigations.
Most state public defender offices start their new attorneys on low level non violent misdemeanor cases. Public defenders then move on to more serious misdemeanors, simple assault, domestic violence and weapons and drug cases. Within two years, they may be conducting felony trials and within five years, homicide or capital cases. Federal public defenders handle criminal trials in federal court for alleged violations of federal law or criminal cases involving state law violations in which the court can assert federal jurisdiction. An important element of criminal defense work is the ability to cope with the strong feelings that arise when a client’s freedom and sometimes life, hangs in the balance. To be an effective public defender, one must have a willingness to challenge authority and become a relentless advocate.
Office structure varies from one organization to another. In most, attorneys handle their own cases from pretrial through sentencing. In others, attorneys manage a specific portion of the proceedings in a larger number of cases. Some public defender offices, especially those in large cities, have specialized practices in areas of law such as juvenile defense and immigration. Other offices handle only appellate work, emphasizing research, writing and appellate argument. A minority of states contract their entire public defender services out to private firms.
Most public defender offices hire entry level lawyers for full-time work during the 3L year or attorneys lateral into public defender offices provided they have a demonstrated interest in serving indigent clients. Entry level salaries vary from state to state, but generally the range is between $40,000 and $50,000.