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Is Indigent Defense Right For You?

There is much more variation in indigent defense representation than you might think. There are trial level defenders, appellate defenders, and postconviction defenders. There are defenders who work in the federal criminal justice system and those who work in state systems. Some specialize in juvenile work; others work with adults accused of crime. Some work in small courthouses in rural areas while others are in big cities. Some focus on misdemeanor cases while others work on felony or capital cases.

Different aspects of a public defender’s job require different skill sets. As a result, many different personality types can make for a good public defender. Some people are drawn to the work because they like having direct client contact on a regular basis and want to fight for the underdog. Others love litigation and know that public defender work gives new lawyers more courtroom experience than any other job. But not every public defender is an extroverted gunner, and not every public defender has incredible courtroom presence or innate advocacy skills. Introverted people can be wonderful public defenders. Loud, powerful voices are not always the most persuasive. Sometimes, a quiet but genuine approach can be equally, if not more, effective. The bookworm with an encyclopedic knowledge of the law is sometimes the public defender who will find a creative way to win a case for her client. And the people person who is a good negotiator will be able to talk prosecutors into ditching cases in ways that others cannot. The real question is not what specific skills you have (though those might be relevant to what type of public defender work you would most enjoy). Rather, whether this job is right for you depends on whether you believe in the Sixth Amendment’s mission. Ask yourself the following questions:

Are you willing to confront and challenge authority?

Public defenders are constantly fighting an uphill battle against government lawyers who have greater resources; police officers or federal agents who are out to imprison their clients; and judges, many of whom are former prosecutors with little sympathy for the plight of public defender clients. Many people in the system presume that the defendants are guilty and view public defenders who attempt to assert their clients’ rights as obstreperous, difficult, and even unethical. Public defenders have to be able to stand up and fight in that hostile environment. At the trial level, there is immense pressure to persuade clients to plead guilty, and you have to have the fortitude to withstand that pressure. At the appellate and postconviction levels, your client has already been convicted of a crime and the courts are just looking for ways to affirm or uphold that conviction. Your job is to fight against that. At all stages, the public defender stands in the way of the system’s assembly line processing of people into prison. You must be committed to the cause and have the courage, strength, and assertiveness to stand up for your clients’ rights in order to do this job.

This does not mean that you have to be made of steel. Even the best public defenders need support from friends and family after a hard day. Nor does it mean that you have to be a contentious person by nature. There are some people who avoid confrontation at all costs in their own lives, but when they are given a role to play that requires putting up a fight for someone else, they will go to the mat for that person. In the end, you have to ask yourself if you will be willing to step into the fray and fight for your clients.

It is also okay if you don’t yet know the answer to this question. Law school might be the first time when you have really thought about doing this kind of work and you might wonder whether you can handle it or not. Doing a clinic or interning in a public defender office where you can represent clients in court is a good way to figure this out. And you should figure it out sooner rather than later if you can.

Do you like interacting with and counseling clients?

As a public defender, your job is to represent the interests of your client. This means that you have to enjoy interacting with and speaking to your clients. You have to be willing to educate clients, listen to what they want, develop a rapport with them, and counsel them. This is sometimes harder than it sounds – not because public defender clients are dangerous psychopaths or socially maladjusted as popular media would sometimes have you believe – but because most public defender clients have grown up in environments that are foreign to the attorneys who are appointed to represent them. When you walk into a jail cell to talk to a client, his instinct is not to trust you, because in his experience most people are not trustworthy. You have to earn his trust by being a compassionate and empathetic listener, by showing him that you really are there to help, and by being on his side. Most public defender clients are kind, respectful people whose life circumstances led them down a different path. Understanding rather than judging your clients is an essential part of the job.

That said, public defenders who care too much about their clients often find it difficult to handle the job. Human suffering is a constant part of being a public defender. People go to jail regularly and it wreaks havoc on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. All public defenders have to find ways to cope with the human misery inherent in the criminal justice system. Some use humor; others channel their anger into a punching bag or an exercise regime; still others rely on faith, family, or friends. You have to ask yourself if you are able to handle the emotional toll that comes with being a public defender.

When you think about the answer to that question, however, it is important to remember that the toll that the work takes on you can vary a lot depending on the type of public defender work you do and the office where you work. If you work in a public defender office with a supportive culture, you might come back after a hard trial loss to find some ice cream or a beer on your desk and your colleagues waiting to cheer you up and share in your anger at the injustice. That makes it easier. If you work in an appellate or postconviction office, the emotional toll is a little different. You don’t deal with the human drama on a day-to-day basis in the same way. Some find that easier. Once again, a criminal-based clinic or an internship in a public defender office is a good way to expose you to the emotional highs and lows of the job so you can figure out if this work is right for you.

How do you feel about representing a person who committed a violent crime?

To be a public defender is to constantly answer the same question over and over again, whether it is your mother asking or the person cutting your hair: How can you defend someone you know committed a violent crime? Many people cannot understand how public defenders do what they do, because they are outraged by criminal acts and because they have stereotypical views of the type of people who commit crime. You should think about your answer to this question, both to see if this line of work is right for you and to start preparing now for the cocktail party conversations to come in your future. If you get upset or angry about criminal behavior and don’t think you would be able to defend someone who committed a criminal act, this is not the right line of work for you.

One important thing to recognize when you think about answering this question is that public defender work is not all about the innocent. Many law students are excited when they think about exonerating an innocent person, but that is only a small fraction of public defender work. As a defender, you will represent many people who have committed crimes and you will free many of them on what society might deem to be legal technicalities. You have to not only be okay with that; you have to embrace it.

Defenders will have different answers to the question of how they represent the guilty. Some thrive on the work and believe that the system is so stacked against the poor that they are willing to do whatever it takes to even the playing field. They view themselves as equalizing a power imbalance in society. Others relate to the human side of their jobs and recognize that good people can sometimes do bad things and that people are often affected by the circumstances in their lives. If we were all defined by our worst acts, think about how you would be judged. Still others focus on the draconian nature of criminal penalties and the inhumane prison conditions. Even if someone has committed a crime, it does not mean that society should lock her up and throw away the key.

Some law students feel drawn to the defense side, but find themselves wondering if they could represent one kind of alleged criminal. Maybe drug cases, assault cases, even murder cases don’t bother them, but when they think about representing an alleged rapist or an alleged child molester, they aren’t sure that they could do it. If you are one of these students, you have to do some soul searching and some real investigation to figure out if this is the right job for you. Spend a summer or a part of a semester volunteering in the public defender office. When you are there, seek out the attorneys who work on the rape or child abuse cases. Talk to them. Work on one of the cases. You might surprise yourself and realize that you had a stereotype of “the type of people who commit those offenses” that turns out not to be true. You might have less trouble than you initially thought. It might turn out that you actually want to work on those cases. Alternatively, you might realize that you were right. That you can’t do the job without judging some of your clients, which probably means that this isn’t the job for you.

In the end, if you are a person who is willing to confront and challenge the system, enjoys direct client contact, and wants to fight for the underprivileged regardless of whether they have done something wrong, this might be your calling. It is a job that comes with many rewards. Every public defender remembers her first win – the look on her client’s face upon realizing that he gets to go home; the hugs from his family members and friends; the rush that comes with knowing that you fought against the system and won. For more information about why people love being a public defender, current University of Michigan Law Students can read stories from MDefenders alumni.