Written by attorney Rohn Conan Barrow

Hiring a Private Attorney or Going with The Public Defender (PD)?

In these tough economic times, I’ve had a number of people coming through my practice who are short on money and long on problems. One of the things we discuss is whether the Public Defender is the correct option for them, given their financial situation. Here are some of the things that go in the decision analysis.

Is the Public Defender any good? Or, Is the Public Defender right for me?

The Public Defender is a licensed attorney.

Like any group of professionals, some are better than others. Some have more experience than others. In general, younger less experienced Public Defenders are assigned to misdemeanor courts and the more experienced go on to handle felony cases.


One of the major limitations, is you don’t get to select your own attorney, inasmuch as, the Office of the Public Defender is appointed by the court to individuals who qualify. You get the “calendar deputy." In some felony cases, a specially assigned Public Defender will handle the matter after the arraignment. . In some circumstances, there may be a technical issue of a conflict where the Public Defender’s Office cannot take a client.


Public Defenders generally have to take all the individuals who request their services who qualify. Therefore, Public Defenders have very large case loads. This is the one area that causes the most complaints. Frankly, client handholding is very limited to nonexistent.


Public Defenders get the bum rap of not caring. However, showing you care is a function of available time. Most Public Defenders handle their clients in a fast paced, almost rude manner. This is not to say Public Defends don’t care, they do. I have been in conference rooms trying to work deals for clients with prosecutors, watching Public Defenders passionately advocating their client’s cases. I have also seen on more than one occasion, a Public Defender get overwhelmed by their case load because they can’t do the level of legal work they would like. Trust me, they care.


Because convenience is a function of time, Public Defenders don’t generally make their client’s court obligations convenient. Many clients of Public Defenders have long waits before their cases are heard. Private attorneys receive priority in many courtroom and can have their clients moved through very quickly. In California, many misdemeanors can be handled without the client present. Public Defenders normally require their clients to be present and wait.


Well, deal making is a gift, some people have it, and some people don’t. A “calendar deputy" Public Defender should know all the standard offers given by the “People" in their assigned courtroom after the 1st month on the job. However, a Public Defender, like any public servant, is subject to being reassigned. Building necessary experience can get negatively impacted. Working special deals, outside the “standard offer" for clients, is a function of time, experience, and skill.


Public Defenders perform a large number of trials. Private attorneys have much fewer because they are less likely to try marginal cases. Because of the large expense of a trial, most private attorneys get only cases with highly motivated clients. Additionally, private attorneys are very protective of their reputations. People don’t hire losers. Therefore, before taking a case to trial, skilled and experienced private attorneys go over the risks and benefits of a trial. Properly setting client expectation, as to potential results, is the hallmark of a good trial attorney.


Public Defenders are servants of the people, they are pay a fixed salary based on grade by the county. Their fees are paid to the county based on an ability to pay scale; therefore, Public Defenders are not necessarily free. However, Private attorneys charge for their services and their fees are negotiable. Some Private attorneys charge a fixed fee, others charge an hourly rate. Some private attorneys charge very low fees and others charge substantially more. In most cases you get what you pay for. That said, a good Public Defender is better than bad private attorney. If you can’t afford an experienced and skilled private attorney, then the Public Defenders is much better than going on your own. Moreover, I worry about low cost private attorneys because they don’t seem to charge enough to provide a high level of service. Over the years I’ve seen many people get what they pay for. It takes both skill and time to get a great deal for client or set something up for a successful trial.

Therefore, it really all comes down to time. Quality private attorneys generally have much more limited case loads and can devote substantially more time to individual clients and their specific facts and needs; thereby, achieving superior results. However, the Public Defender is a good choice when money is too tight to consider hiring a quality private attorney.

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