Thursday, May 21, 2015

Private Lawyer Versus a Public Defender

THE law entitles a citizen accused to a public defender if they are indigent. Indigent would be defined as receiving government assistance for subsistence (unemployment, food stamps, and public housing). The courts require proof of this and to receive a public defender without financially qualifying is a theft offense, which is a crime of moral turpitude and serious. Most people think that a public defender is free to them. It is not. Although the taxpayers pay for this legal service (some counties have a public defender’s office- others use a wheel court appointment system), it is not free to the citizen accused. The law allows the court to order the defendant to pay back the services (at a much discounted rate) back as a condition of the plea or sentence. If it is a dismissal, the judge can order these fees paid back (proof) before the dismissal is signed. The court appointment system does not amount to getting a “free lawyer.”

People in prison make the distinction of “free world” lawyers versus court appointed lawyers. If you ask anyone in prison to share the horror stories of public defenders, undoubtedly you will hear stories of how the public defender “works with the system” (and not for you). Although this is not true, the perception remains. Do judges prefer to use court appointed lawyers and public defenders that plead cases to lessen their dockets? Although this is not always true, once again the perception remains. So what is the difference between a court appointed lawyer and one that is privately retained?


The fact is most public defenders are not specialized in one particular aspect of criminal law (DWI, for example). A public defender’s workload is generally heavy and it is a fact that they make less per case than a privately retained one. Does this translate into getting lesser service or results? Not necessarily. But training, resources, and specialization are very important considerations to factor into choosing representation.

The Coffey Firm associates and I purposely do not take court appointments. We do not feel that it is fair to unduly burden ourselves with our resources when we have retained clients that are paying for our time, attention and reputation. In addition, we provide physical facilities and ample staff to accommodate our clients and their needs during normal working hours. Being available for our clients is part of the fee they pay us for, versus getting paid a court appearance, which is typical for a court appointed lawyer. Court appointed lawyers must fight to get paid for non-court time and often are not compensated fairly for such. This is not a problem with privately retained lawyers. Court appointed lawyers also do not have the resources available for top continued legal education (for example, expensive specialized seminars). Often it is this difference in training which results in drastically different results given the same set of facts.

Much like in the field of medicine or taking your car for repairs at a shop that specializes in that brand of car or car repair, court appointed lawyers as a general rule do not hold the level of knowledge or specialization in a particular field which can make all the difference in a case result. It is vital that our courts continue to appoint lawyers to the indigent who cannot afford specialized retained counsel; however, it is just as important for the public to understand the distinct disadvantages of such.

Knowledge is power. Lawyers are not “one size fits all.” Court appointed lawyers are critical in democracy to uphold the rights and protections of those who cannot afford to defend themselves, but this does guarantee they will get the best representation or even have a say in who is appointed (courts determine this). My personal favorite quote on hiring lawyers is by Red Adair, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”

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