Becoming a Public Defender

Becoming a Public Defender


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Becoming a Public Defender

Becoming a Public Defender is an ambition of countless young lawyers. There are many unsung heroes in public service that work tirelessly for the community to ensure that justice is served.

Pros and Cons of Being a Public Defender 

As with anything, there are pros and cons to becoming a Public Defender.

Experience: Some law students do not consider a career as a Public Defender due to the long hours and high caseloads of Public Defenders. Yet, this is why many newly qualified lawyers want to become Public Defenders. 

They crave this opportunity so that they can get experience in the field of Criminal Law.

Stress: If you want to be a trial lawyer, your experience as a Public Defender is impressive. The majority of Public Defenders get to go to court all the time. It can be very stressful, but if you learn to handle the stress, it can be great for you as an individual and also from a professional point.

Reputation:  It can be challenging to explain to your family and friends why you defend people accused of heinous crimes like rape and murder.

Fulfillment: you make a difference in real people's lives, and you get to uphold the constitution.

Salary: Public Defenders do not make as much money as their counterparts in private practice. In private practice, you have the opportunity to make the big bucks. According to, Public Defenders earns, in 2020, an average annual salary of $61 790.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness program: Some agencies offer a student loan forgiveness program.

Training: Public Defenders have ongoing training opportunities and career cultivation programs in place.

Requirements to become a Public Defender.

You have to be a qualified lawyer to become a Public Defender. Generally, this means at least four years of undergraduate studies and a three-year law degree, followed by the written bar examination.

It would be best if you also were impervious to emotions and emotional sway. Further, you must have a good constitution and a healthy amount of stamina and resilience to hardships so you can bounce right back without missing a beat. With this job, there are no short cuts and very little, if anything, is 'handed to you on a plate.'

Why Become a Public Defender?

Public Defenders work for federal, local or state agencies. Their efforts are within the criminal justice field and focused on representing people accused of committing crimes.

The courts appoint them in specific cases where the accused cannot afford to hire a private lawyer. The actual work involves a lot of preparation, research, plea-bargaining, and trial work.

The work of a public defender can be very stressful, particularly when defending clients in court. They often work long hours to meticulously research cases and prepare for their matters. Even the slightest detail can be useful to their arguments, so they toil endlessly looking for any particulars that will help the clients' case. 

How to Become a Public Defender?

Step 1: Complete an Undergraduate Degree Program

There is no specific field of study in which aspiring lawyers should study. Some law students hold bachelor's degrees in politics, economics, history, finance, or government.

Step 2: Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

The LSAT test is a standardized test that law schools require prospective students to take.  Law schools that are approved by the American Bar Association require prospective students to submit their transcripts and LSAT scores when they apply for admission to law schools. 

Among other things, the LSAT tests a student's critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Prospective students need to prepare for the LSAT as their results will likely have a direct consequence in their law school admission and their success with their law school application.

Step 3: Graduate from Law School

Find your ideal law school and then do your three years of successful full-time studies.

It is recommended that you get into the best school possible.  The second and third year of studies usually has electives. If you plan to become a Public Defender, then take relevant criminal justice electives.

Once you know that you want to become a Public Defender, apply for a Public Defender Internship. Working as an intern will likely be unpaid. But you get to experience 'working in the field,' which will look good on your Resume.

If you impress the agency you work for, it may be easier for you to get a job with them as they know your work, rather than other prospective employees who are unknown to them.

Step 4: Pass the Bar Exam

After all your hard work, there is another hurdle in your way. You have to pass the bar examination before you can start your career as a Public Defender.

Different states have different bars and requirements. Decide where you want to practice law, and make sure that you research the requirements for the top-rated Public Defender Agency of your choice.

The American Bar Association (ABA), mentions that most states require applicants seeking admission to the bar also to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination exam. It is essential to check if your state requires that you pass this exam so that you know what is expected.

Work as a Public Defender

After graduating with a law degree and passing your bar exam, you are deemed ready for the role of a Public Defender.

Public Defenders work hard and have a very high caseload. They are typically thrown into everything and must 'hit the ground running.' They can be expected to handle multiple plea-bargainings on a single day.

They do the same work as a private defense attorney but at twice the pace, and the workload, and a lot less pay.

Do Public Defenders win their Cases?

Public Defenders often get a bad reputation.  The reason is that they simply have too much work and too many cases to handle – all of them being time-sensitive. Public Defenders get cases allocated to them. This means that they do not have a choice in the matter and cannot say no, sorry, I cannot handle any further cases.

The majority of Public Defenders are hardworking and dedicated attorneys. Where a private defense attorney can manage their own caseload, they have far fewer cases than those of the Public Defenders.

Many Public Defenders will fight as hard as they can for their clients, and yes, many of them win their cases!

The majority of Public Defenders will work a solid 40-hour workweek with many additional hours when they have a trial to run.

The Media

TV Series are often created around bogus Public Defenders showing the job to be generally deadbeat. Either because they are considered losers (owing to their high caseload and low employee count), that they are in constant conflict with the Police Department – which is demoralizing, and further there is a sort of general negativity about the work.

The finality of these TV series is that occasionally they win one case or two cases and are begrudged heroes for a day when an innocent person or people, are found to be not guilty!

These highlighted scenes are portrayed in the extreme. What you're viewing is the day to day life of a Public Defender but with emphasis on certain aspects that are taken entirely out of proportion.

Newspapers and TV interviews do precisely the same thing. They depict the job as being dead-end and then glorify an occasional win. It's precisely what the public wants to see and is very entertaining and uplifting; the ‘feel good’ halo effect.

However, in retrospect, it does instead make the job of a Public Defender look mostly gloomy with the sporadic win appearing to be so much more infrequent and difficult to accomplish. It isn’t the case at all.

The job of a Public Defender gives a 'newbie' an excellent all-round grounding in Criminal Law, how to be a good lawyer, and what to expect. It 'gets their feet wet,' as the saying goes. If you are an established lawyer, then you already know that you are fighting the 'good fight,' upholding the Constitution and Justice; and that you are exemplifying the law – not your 'take' on it, but pure unemotional law and the application thereof.

In that case, you should feel good about your work every day and the fact that you do an honest job and display the law correctly. Serving the public in this way is an essential and most fulfilling means of following your professional calling, doing your duty, and (as mentioned above), making a significant and positive difference in people's lives.

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