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Pros and Cons of Being a Public Defender

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

What are the pros and cons of being a public defender?

First of all, public defenders are surrounded by pros and cons every day. They are the dregs of society, the cast-offs, and the remorseless left-overs from a time when life was innocent. And those are just the district attorneys.

Just kidding. In the criminal defense business, you have to have a bit of gallows humor to deal with the real likelihood that you may never win a case. Unless you count plea bargains as wins. Then you will win 95 percent of your cases.

So here are some things to think about:

Con No. 1: The Reputation

Let's be real. If you are defending pedophiles, sex offenders, and murderers, you are the devil's advocate. In the adversary system, somebody has to do it.

Get used to defending your professional choice to in-laws, edgy friends, and complete strangers who will ask: "How can you sleep at night knowing you represent criminals?"

Con No. 2: The Pay

Adding injury to insult, public defenders do not make a lot of money compared to most other lawyers. Maybe public interest attorneys, who often work for non-profits or charitable organizations, make comparable wages.

Whatever psychic pay public defenders may receive, it doesn't pay for a big house or a fancy car. Plus, there's no overtime pay for professionals, so working on the weekends before a trial is just part of the job.

Con No. 3: The Stress

Stress is probably the biggest downside to working as a public defender. You can't really control the stress of the public defender's life; it comes at you too fast.

With 80 to 100 case at any time, and barely enough time to recognize your clients' faces, you will find it hard to manage. And if you have kids who want to know what you did any day at the office, what are you going to tell them?

"Well, I pled out a guy who killed his mother." No, you can't unburden yourself at home.

Pro No. 1: The Law

Few civil attorneys have the opportunity to see core constitutional values at work. Public defenders have the responsibility to protect them every day.

Freedom against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to counsel, to remain silent, a speedy trial, a jury trial -- these are inherent in every criminal case. Our forefathers established them, and public defenders protect them.

We're talking blood of the defendants and guts of the constitution. That's gotta feel good, or at least more moving than a contract dispute.

Pro No. 2: The Trial

Lawyers know instinctively that real lawyers go to court. Of course, there are worthy workers at the office. But it's like the difference between English solicitors and barristers --- barristers get to wear the wig.

That mantel of the trial lawyer is significant for a few reasons. And it is one of the main reasons new lawyers go the public defender's office -- to get trial experience. They may try a hundred cases before a new civil attorney tries one.

Pro No. 3: The Satisfaction

Poor lawyers are the happiest. I know, it doesn't make sense but there it is.

According to a survey of more than 6,000 lawyers, attorneys who made the least money reported the most happiness. It has something do with being on a mission or feeling good about helping the indigent or fighting for civil rights.

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