As a former public defender and current private attorney, many people have asked me about the similarities and differences between the two types of attorneys. In this blog post, I will provide a general overview of those similarities and differences. Please keep in mind that this blog post is geared toward private criminal defense attorneys and public defenders. Also, to be clear, this blog post is intended to be purely neutral and is not intended to disparage or otherwise speak poorly of either private attorneys or public defenders. I’ve been a public defender and am currently a private attorney, and I’m very proud of having held both positions. Therefore, in no way does this blog post suggest that private attorneys are better than public defenders or vice versa. Instead, this blog post attempts to neutrally examine the similarities and differences, pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, etc. of both types of attorneys.
Private attorneys and public defenders must possess the same basic qualifications. In terms of qualifications, both must have graduated from law school and earned a law degree, both must pass a rigorous character and fitness screening process, both must pass the Maryland state bar exam, and both must be licensed to practice law in the State of Maryland.Private attorneys and public defenders must possess the same set of basic legal skills. For example, both private attorneys and public defender must know how to effectively prepare motions, prepare a case for trial, litigate a case, and interact with clients and witnesses.Private attorneys and public defenders have the same ethical obligations to their clients, the judicial system, and society. Believe it or not, there is a comprehensive set of ethics rules in the State of Maryland (and in every other state) that govern the conduct of all attorneys that are licensed to practice law in the State of Maryland. In Maryland, these rules are referred to as the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules are primarily designed to protect clients and the integrity of the judicial system. Many of the rules are rather simple. For example, Rule 1.3 states that “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” On the other hand, some of the rules are more complex, such as the rules that deal with conflicts of interest. Whether it’s the simple or complex rules, private attorneys and public defenders must follow them both.Private attorneys and public defenders often have the same level of dedication to their clients. Law is a competitive field, and attorneys are major competitors with one another. Public defenders are often dedicated to protecting the rights of the indigent. On the other hand, private attorneys are often dedicated to protecting the rights of the paying client. But the level of dedication and the direction of the dedication are generally the same.
- Basic Qualifications
- Basic Skills
- Ethical Obligations
- Level of Dedication to their Clients
One of the main differences between a private attorney and public defender is that you get to choose a private attorney, while you’re “assigned” a public defender. There are many private attorneys in today’s legal market, and many of them offer free consultations and compete with one another to retain clients. A prospective client is free to “shop around” until he or she finds the “right” attorney. On the other hand, one who is represented by the Office of the Public Defender has little to no say in who is assigned to represent them. In most offices, public defenders are generally assigned to a client based on the type of case, court date, and court location. Therefore, the attorney that ends up being your public defender is often the luck of the draw.There is a difference in the level of individualized attention that a private attorney provides his or her client and that which a public defender provides. This is simply due to the fact that private attorneys often have fewer clients and more resources, while public defenders have an abundance of clients and few resources (in terms of staff). How does this difference in individualized attention translate to the client? Well, a consultation with a private attorney may take place in a nicely furnished office, the client may even be offered his or her favorite beverage, and the attorney will give the client his or her undivided attention. On the other hand, a consultation with a public defender may take place over the phone or in an office, no drinks are offered, and the public defender may be juggling multiple cases in his or her mind as he or she speaks with the client. Both consultations adequately accomplish the same purpose (i.e., getting information from the client and informing the client about his or her case), but the consultation with the private attorney has a much more personalized touch. Consultations are just one area where there is a difference in the level of individualized attention between private attorneys and public defenders. Other areas may include the amount and quality of communication between attorney and client and the development of personalized relationships between attorney and client.There is a difference in the caseload (i.e., the number of active cases) of private attorneys and public defenders. Generally, private attorneys have a smaller caseload than public defenders. This is, in part, why private attorneys are able to provide their clients with a much more individualized experience (see above) than public defenders.There is a difference in the cost of hiring a private attorney versus being appointed a public defender. Hiring a private attorney requires payment of legal fees, while representation by a public defender is free (except for a $50 application processing fee for adults, $25 for juveniles). One of the great things about the United States is that if you cannot afford to hire a private attorney, a public defender will be provided to you at no cost. On the other hand, another great thing about the United States is that, if you can afford a private attorney, there is a large and competitive market of attorneys from which to choose.For the client, there is a diference between what expenses cost for having a private attorney versus a public defender. Clients represented by a public defender are often exempt from certain expenses that clients represented by private attorneys would otherwise have to pay themselves. The most apparent example of this is the cost of hiring an expert witness. A client represented by a public defender does not have to pay anything for an expert witness to be hired for his or her case, while a client represented by a private attorney often does.Private attorneys and public defenders have different degrees of access to various resources. Examples of such resources include social workers, mental health professionals, and other attorneys. Private attorneys and their clients must often rely on rely on private sector resources. On the other hand, public defenders and their clients have the benefit of access to resources funded by the government. For example, many local public defender offices have a full-time social worker.Another difference between private attorneys and public defenders is their courtroom and trial experience. Due to their large caseloads (see above), public defenders, especially ones who have made a career of being a public defender, generally have more courtroom and trial experience than private attorneys. Thus, a seasoned public defender may be able to work out a good plea agreement faster than a private attorney. Similarly, a seasoned public defender generally knows which cases are worth taking to trial and which are likely better off being handled by way of a plea agreement. On the other hand, private attorneys may make up for their lack of courtroom and trial experience by attending more training seminars than public defenders.Finally, the types of services with which a public defender can provide to his or her client are different from those that a private attorney can provide. Generally speaking, public defenders are strictly limited to defending people accused of committing crimes or serious traffic offenses. Private attorneys, on the other hand, have the freedom to represent a client in nearly any matter in which the attorney is competent to do so. So, a private attorney who represents a client in a criminal case may also assist that client with a personal injury lawsuit whereas a public defender would be unable to do so. In short, private attorneys are able to provide more of a comprehensive level of service to their clients than public defenders.
- Choice of Attorney
- Individualized Level of Attention
- Cost of Legal Services
- Cost of Expenses
- Availability of Resources
- Courtroom and Trial Experience
- Comprehensive Service