Public Defender vs. Private Attorney

public-defender-vs-private-attorneyEveryone is familiar with the Miranda reading issued by the police officer when they arrest someone, especially the second part of it,“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you.” That’s the beauty of the American justice system, even if you can’t afford an expensive private criminal defense attorney, you will be be provided with a public defender who will fight for your Constitutional rights. For most jurisdictions, many people who can afford private attorneys will also qualify for public defenders. So which one should you choose if you are one of those people and you are facing criminal charges? Hopefully the information provided in this article will help you make that decision. It is important because it is a decision that has the potential to alter your life forever.

Are Public Defenders Really That Bad?

Public defenders seems to have a bad reputation. Whenever they are depicted in popular culture, they are represented as incompetent, bumbling, and inadequate lawyers. However, in real life, most public defenders are highly trained, well educated and passionate lawyers who work very hard for what they believe in: the Constitutional rights guaranteed to each and everyone. So where did they get such a bad reputation in the eyes of the people? Is it really just misrepresentation by popular culture? It could be a lie, but as the saying goes, even a bold-faced lie has a grain of truth in it. So what’s turning these highly trained, well educated and hardworking public defenders into the poster-child of ineffective counsel? It really just comes down to two main reasons: time and money.

Problems Facing a Public Defender

Most public defenders have enormous case loads. As a result, public defenders only have limited time to devote to each case. This makes it hard for them to focus their undivided attention to each individual cases regardless of the nature of the case. You might ask: why do public defenders have such a heavy case load? This is related to the second reason: money. Public defenders are state or federal employees, they are paid by the government and as such, subject to the state or federal budget. Most public defenders offices are underfunded which limits the numbers of attorney they can hire. The problem is so endemic in some states that even their state supreme court have deemed the problem “chronic”, such as the state of Florida. Combining these two reasons, it’s easy to see the grain of truth behind the misrepresentation that public defenders are bad lawyers. You can have the best criminal defense attorney in the world but if you tie his hands with time and funding restraints, he will become a spitting image of the bumbling bad lawyer depicted on TV. Here’s some other minor problems facing you if you choose to go forward with a public defender:

  • By law, public defenders can only represent you in your criminal case. They are prohibited from helping you with related civil or administrative matters such as a driver license suspension hearing.
  • In most situations, you are required to work with the particular public defender who has been appointed to your case. With a private attorney, you have the ability to interview several attorneys and choose the paid lawyer that you feel most comfortable with.

Finally, most people will be surprised to find out that public defenders aren’t free. If you plead guilty, no contest, or are later convicted after trial, the court will often order you to pay attorney fees as part of your sentence. This practice is employed to reimburse the public for the services of your appointed counsel. If you attempt to seek the appointment of a public defender, you must first submit an application to the clerk of the court demonstrating your inability to pay for a private attorney. The application includes details of your financial situation including income, assets, liabilities, the amount of bail posted, and other pertinent information. Additionally, all applicants must pay a non-refundable application fee which will vary depending on the jurisdiction.

The Advantages of a Private Criminal Defense Attorney

Are private criminal defense attorneys that much better than public defenders? The New York Times recently published a revealing study that found that the average sentence for clients of public defenders was almost three years longer than the sentences of clients represented by private lawyers. The criminal justice system only affords you one chance at achieving your desired result. By hiring an experienced private criminal defense attorney you can expect the following advantages:

  • They can intervene sooner in the process so that no formal charges are filled against you
    • An public defender can only intervene after they are appointed, which is after formal charges are filed against you
  • Private criminal defense attorneys choose the amount of case load they accept and thus are never over-load with too many cases
  • You will receive more individual attention compared to a public defender
  • Private criminal defense attorneys can assist you with related civil or administrative legal matters to your case, even after the conclusion of the case
  • Private criminal defense attorneys are not limited by the state or federal budget and thus have more resources to investigate your case
  • Unlike public defenders, who are mostly new graduates from law school, the majority of private criminal defense attorneys are seasoned lawyers who are much more experienced


It is our earnest hope that the above article have helped you decide between a public defender and a private criminal defense attorney. Such a decision should always be approached with the utmost care because it is one of those decisions that will change your life forever. Below is a info-graphic that summarizes the statical differences between a private criminal defense attorney and a public defender.

Private Attorney vs Public Defender