Specialty Areas in Indigent Defense Representation

​Capital Defense

Some public defenders work exclusively on capital cases in capital defender offices. These attorneys do a combination of trial, appellate, and postconviction work. Many organizations that specialize in capital defense work offer post-graduate fellowships for interested law students.

Juvenile Defense

Juveniles accused of committing criminal acts are constitutionally entitled to the assistance of counsel as a matter of due process. Although technically not “criminal” proceedings, juvenile adjudication proceedings often look a lot like criminal trials. However, the jurisdiction of juvenile courts is limited. They can only give juveniles sentences that last until they become adults. And the system has not fully given up on rehabilitation in the context of juvenile proceedings. Child advocates, social workers, and psychologists often have large roles to play in the juvenile system. Many public defender organizations have juvenile defender divisions. To learn more about juvenile work, students can look at some of the following resources: (1) The National Juvenile Defender Center; (2) Models for Change; (3) National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Family Defense

The child welfare system has come under increased scrutiny from civil rights advocates.  Race and class disparities in child welfare proceedings parallel the disparities found in the criminal justice system; in both systems, low income communities of color face state intervention and intrusion at staggering rates.  In the child welfare system, rather than face incarceration or other limits on individual liberty, parents face the removal of their children from their care, initiated by allegations of neglect or abuse.  Families are often targeted for child neglect and abuse investigations because they are low income, have unstable housing, suffer from mental illnes, (ab)use substances, or are victims of abuse themselves.  Such allegations are brought by private citizens or institutional "mandated reporters" (e.g., police officers, teachers, doctors, and social workers).  Reporters of suspected neglect or abuse often project their own subjective values about parenting, and their perceptions are colored by race and class bias.  Removal of children from the care of their parents often results in foster care or institutional placement; courts may even permanently terminate parental rights.  Parents facing removal of their children do not have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel under the U.S. Constitution.  However, some public defender offices have dedicated teams of family defense attorneys.  These attorneys represent indigent parents in family or juvenile court, defending their clients' interests and ensuring that they receive due process in the fight to prevent the dissolution of their family unit.  Family defense attorneys perform many of the same functions as criminal public defenders, including investigation, motion practice, emergency hearings, and representation at trial.  

Structural Opportunities

Many law reform organizations like the ACLU or the Brennan Center work on structural ways to improve indigent defense delivery systems or prisoners’ rights issues. These organizations often have post-graduate fellowships for students interested in working in structural reform. Skadden fellows, Soros fellows, and Equal Justice Works fellows can also use their fellowships to work on criminal justice issues at a policy level. There are also special litigation sections in a number of legal aid and defender organizations. The mission of these sections is to use litigation to address systematic problems in the criminal justice systems in their jurisdictions. In recent years, a growing number of states have created Indigent Defense Commissions. These are state oversight commissions designed to prescribe standards for the delivery of indigent defense services in the state. These commissions may set caseload limits, talk about attorney training requirements, or funding for experts and investigators. These commissions are staffed with lawyers and often have interns as well. Finally, there are think tanks like the Vera Institute of Justice and the Center for Court Innovation that focus on criminal justice issues.


Immigration law is both interesting and complex, and public defenders routinely have to plea bargain in the shadow of immigration consequences. Some larger public defender offices have in-house immigration specialists to help attorneys navigate this complicated area. Additionally, there are some independent organizations whose mission is to work with defender organizations to provide critical training on the immigration consequences of crimes and provide them with technical assistance in cases when necessary. One example of such an organization is the Defending Immigrants Partnership, which is a collaboration of the Immigrant Defense Project (IDP), the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG). The Immigrant Legal Resources Center also serves some of these functions. Students interested in the intersection between immigrants’ rights and indigent defense might find jobs in these organizations interesting.

International Defense

Some international organizations work either to provide indigent defense representation to individuals in other countries or to help developing nations develop their own indigent defense delivery systems. The International Bridges to Justice organization does work in Cambodia, China, and Vietnam. The International Legal Foundation helps developing countries establish their own indigent defense network.