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So You Got a P.D. Now What?:3 Myths about Public Defenders

“ I don’t want no P.D.  I want a real lawyer!” exclaims the potential client sitting across from me in my office conference room.  He goes on to tell me that his cousin’s uncle’s best friend’s “baby daddy” got railroaded by a “penitentiary deliverer” and he “ain’t going.”

I hear this same song at least once a week.  Someone who has little or no personal experience with any Public Defender’s office has very strong negative opinions about the attorneys who work there (yes, I said attorneys…but I’ll get to that in a bit).

Prospective clients are usually not prepared for the direction the conversation heads from there.  As an attorney in private practice, they are looking for me to commiserate.  They want me to cosign.

Instead, I defend the defenders.  I explain that I cut my teeth as an attorney in the Public Defender’s office for six years, and litigated everything from DUIs to murders as a “P.D.”  I inform them that nearly all of my super-hero, legal mentors are current or former Assistant Public Defenders (the appropriate term).  I tell them that being a P.D. was my dream job — the only job I applied to when I graduated law school.  Their jaws fall to the floor.   

No one is going to walk into my office ever, and drag Public Defenders.

In that vein, here are the top three myths I plan to bust wide open about being an attorney in any major metropolitan Public Defender’s office in the land:

MYTH #1:     PDs aren’t real lawyers. 

Please stop listening to jailhouse rumors and read the facts:  Public Defenders are licensed attorneys.  They underwent a minimum of four years of college and three more years of law school.  They have at least two degrees – a Bachelor’s and a Juris Doctor (law degree).  Many have MBAs, Master’s and/or LLMs. 

            Then, after all of that rigorous (and expensive) education, they studied for, sat for and PASSED the Bar Exam in at least one state.

                        MYTH #2:     Any paid lawyer is better than every Public Defender. 

            When the housing market crashed in 2008, there was an influx of new faces in the courtrooms I frequented.  As it turns out, they were real estate attorneys whose practices had dried up.  They were dabbling in criminal defense to replace their incomes.

They stood out. They used all of the wrong lingo; asked all the wrong questions; and pled every single client out – many of whom I personally would have taken to trial.

I’m not ragging on real estate attorneys. I’ve also seen so-called seasoned private criminal defense attorneys never try a single case or withdraw from a case the minute the client says he wants to go to trial.  My point is, these were paid attorneys who knew less than most Public Defenders learn in their first week on the job.

            MYTH #3:     PDs are penitentiary deliverers. 

            Again, just stop.  Please. There are lazy workers in every profession.  There are bad employees at your job.  But, to think that an attorney, who has the skill-set to work at any big firm, easily earning high six-figures a year, signed up for low pay and daily verbal abuse (from clients, clients’ families and countless judges) just to send you to “the joint” is asinine. 

            Most Assistant Public Defenders consider their work a calling to serve the underdog – the poor, the addicted, the marginalized, the mentally ill, the forgotten.  They fight hard daily and go home each night tired, usually saddled with two armfuls of casefiles. 

In short, they are too busy seeking justice for all of their clients to take the time to plot your individual demise.