Should you become a public defender or a private attorney?


  • Should you become a public defender or a private attorney?

    We've touched on a number of topics related to law in previous articles, including different types of law and LSAT test-taking best practices. This time, we'll go into detail about two common career paths within the field of criminal law – public defender and private attorney.

    These two rewarding careers both represent the defensive side of court cases, helping convicted individuals seek equitable justice. Despite this main similarity in these two roles, there are plenty of factors that distinguish them from each other. When you know you'd like to pursue the defensive side of law, you can look at these details to figure out which role you see as the best fit for your passions and goals.

    Job profile: Public defender

    Plenty of individuals find value in assisting those who have been accused of crimes, whether they are helping to overturn wrongful conviction cases or ensure their defendants' sentences are just. These professionals – public defenders – may cover a number of different types of cases, from minor traffic violations to violent felonies.

    The common job duties of a public defender include:

    • Representing clients in cases involving misdemeanor or felony charges, mental health issues, neglect and delinquent youth, among others
    • Drafting legal documents
    • Advising clients on legal matters related to their cases
    • Conducting research on matters related to their cases

    Why exactly might an individual hire a public defender to work on their case rather than a private attorney? When someone cannot afford a lawyer's fees, the government will provide them with a public defender to take on their case. This is a right under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial… and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."

    Public defenders may be required to represent multiple clients, managing several trials at any given period. Before appearing in court, a public defender will work with clients to file any pre-trial motions and guide them through the processes of the court proceedings. Additionally, they may negotiate with the court to agree on a sentence time, acquittal or bond amount.

    To become a public defender, candidates will need to have adequate education and experience. Public defenders are required to have a Juris Doctorate, as well as a license to practice law in the relevant state. For some positions, previous experience in criminal law may be preferred or required. To become a public defender and succeed in the role, a number of soft skills are necessary. Public defenders must have excellent communication skills, both in oral and written forms. They must have comprehensive knowledge of criminal law, court procedures and the judicial system as a whole. They should have strong organizational skills and an attention to detail, both in reading, researching and compiling information related to their cases. Successful public defenders typically have good interpersonal skills, as they socialize with people from all walks of life on a regular basis.

    According to PayScale, the average salary for a public defender is $61,189. However, those in the top 90% of earners can expect a gross annual income of approximately $97,000. One of the major factors that affects a public defender's salary is the amount of experience he or she has in the role, per PayScale's research.

    Job profile: Private attorney

    Like public defenders, private attorneys work on defense cases for clients dealing with a variety of cases. Also like public defenders, private attorneys are required to have an advanced degree to practice law, most specifically a Juris Doctorate. These roles vary based on work environment and pay scale.

    While public defenders work directly for the community, at a federal or state level, private attorneys either work for law firms or are self-employed. The hours they work and the exact setting in which they conduct their business is dependent on whether they work for a larger company or for themselves.

    Private defense lawyers' earnings are typically dependent on how many cases they take in a given period of time. Additionally, the exact amount they might make varies, as private attorneys charge different rates. However, according to The Houston Chronicle, private defense lawyers typically charge hundreds of dollars on an hourly basis or thousands of dollars on a daily basis. Other attorneys may charge flat rates for specific types of cases, usually misdemeanors and other common lawsuits. PayScale predicts the average salary for attorneys and lawyers as $83,849, with the top 10% of earners securing $157,000 annually.

    Earning an advanced degree to pursue these career paths

    As previously mentioned, you will need to earn a Juris Doctorate to begin working as a public defender or private attorney. Plenty of universities offer this advanced degree to individuals that are passionate about the law. There are multiple steps you'll need to take in the application process, one of which involves taking the LSAT exam. Once accepted into a program, you can expect to be studying for your JD for approximately three years. After completing the program, you'll need to take the bar exam, the assessment that allows you to begin practicing in a specific jurisdiction.

    If you're trying to decide between multiple JD programs, check out our graduate school portal to find the best fit for your goals, specific interests in the law, transcript and LSAT results and ideal location of study.

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