Decades after the Supreme Court recognized that poor people facing criminal charges have a constitutional right to the assistance of an attorney, public defense delivery systems remain in a state of crisis. According to an American Bar Association Report: “[T]housands of persons are processed through America’s courts every year either with no lawyer at all or with a lawyer who does not have the time, resources, or in some cases the inclination to provide effective representation. All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring. Sometimes the proceedings reflect little or no recognition that the accused is mentally ill or does not adequately understand English. The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume appl[ies] to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”
Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice, Exec. Summary at iv-v (2004).
So why would you want to be a public defender? Far too often, you are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. The job is incredibly demanding and emotionally challenging. You routinely interact with people who live in poverty and are frustrated, angry, depressed, drug-addicted, or mentally ill. And the stakes are high. Peoples’ freedom and sometimes their lives are in your hands. Despite these difficulties, most public defenders will tell you that they think it is the best job in the world. You get to be a real lawyer, standing up in court, fighting against injustice, racism, and poverty. You get to give a voice to a person who often has never had anyone stand up for him. You get to hold the state accountable to ensure that peoples’ rights are protected no matter where they come from or what they look like.
For some of you, you already know that you want to be a public defender because you felt the pull from a young age. You’ve done mock trials since high school and love the thrill of litigation. You love to fight for the underdog, and your friends are always teasing you for your bleeding heart ways. But for others, you might not know yet. Maybe you long to help the underprivileged and you are fascinated by criminal law but you fear that you don’t have the right personality to handle this job. Maybe you love criminal law and procedure, but you are not sure if prosecution or defense is right for you. Maybe you fear that you can’t handle the emotional weight of having peoples’ lives in your hands on a day-to-day basis. The MDefenders organization (and this website) is designed to help you learn more about indigent defense as a career option and give you the tools to think about whether this is the right job for you. The website will introduce you to the varied professional opportunities that exist for those interested in indigent defense and describe the classes that you can take and the activities that you can participate in during your time at U of M Law to figure out if this is where your professional passions lie. It will help you navigate the job market for indigent defense and connect you to the many MDefenders alumni who have been in your shoes in the past and who will be resources to you as you figure out your path going forward.
The links on the left (and below) will tell you everything that you need to know about how to prepare for a public defender career at Michigan Law.
Is Indigent Defense Right for You?
Different Types of Indigent Defense
Classes to Take
Extracurricular Opportunities for Aspiring Public Defenders
Faculty at Michigan Law Who Have Defender Backgrounds
Calendar of MDefender Events
Student Resources & Getting a Job