A public defender is just as good as a private attorney. Additionally, a private attorney may be appointed to represent you, there is a court appointment list that many private attorneys will place themselves on. Thus even if you are worried about a public defender you still may receive a private attorney to represent you as part of appointed counsel.
They are just as good and just as bad as a paid lawyer. People often make the assumption that they are getting a better attorney just because they paid for it. That is not always the case.
I suggest you start out anticipating the best, but always monitor the progress. Same advice would apply if you hired a private lawyer or were appointed a private lawyer.
Here's what you should expect from any criminal defense lawyer: The lawyer should keep you informed at all stages, answer your questions, consider your ideas, investigate your case, find evidence to support your defense, try to exclude unfavorable evidence, consult with experts (if needed), come to court prepared, negotiate the best possible disposition, and be fully prepared to try your case if needed or desired.
If your lawyer does those things, then you have a good one. If your lawyer doesn't, then you need a new one. See link below; though keep in mind written with reference to California law. A similar process will be available in your state.
Mr. Smith and Ms. O'Connor are both correct. There are good and bad attorneys, but their abilities have little to do with how they are being paid. I recently had a colleague relate a story to me. He was approached by a criminal defendant who had been appointed an attorney by the court. The defendant's concerns were similar to yours. So my colleague asked the defendant the name of the attorney who had been appointed to him. It just so happened that the attorney who was appointed is widely considered one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Cleveland. In fact, if I were ever in need of criminal representation, the attorney who happened to be appointed to the defendant's case is exactly the attorney I would hire. Follow Ms. O'Connor's suggestions, and you should be fine.
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