The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Public Defender

We're often asked if hiring a public defender is ‘worth it,’ or if ‘public defenders are any good.’ The common misconception is that public defenders aren’t worth the effort to try and obtain, or that they'll not be as effective as a private attorney, but studies show that this is not the case. In fact, a recently study done by the American Bar Association found that public defenders are often just as effective as private counsel. This study went on to conclude that based on the results, it would “strongly suggest that public defender representation is associated with improved case outcomes.”

Before researching the pros and cons and of hiring a public defender, first find out whether or not your qualify for a public defender.


Advantages of a Public Defender

Public defenders work with the same judges and prosecutors everyday, and therefore get to know their personalities better than many private attorneys. Public defenders often know the quirks, peeves and tolerances of the prosecutors and judges, and are able to use this knowledge to better know how to proceed with a case. They also see the same police officers testifying, and know who’s likely going to be a good or bad witness for your case. 

Public defenders also typically work in “niched” areas of law, such as DUI or domestic violence defense. Therefore, they tend to be up-to-date on new law and legal theories in their area of specialty. Since they’re taking on massive case loads, they also know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to defending cases in their specified areas of law. 

A public defender will likely have a good grasp on what the plausible options for you will be, and be able to present an acceptable plea bargain deal to the prosecutor and judge. As a result, you may be done with the criminal process and on with the rest of your life sooner than if you were represented by a private attorney. 

Disadvantages Of A Public Defender

Probably the most apparent disadvantage of hiring a public defender is that they often have a huge overload of cases, and thus cannot devote too much time to any particular one (including yours). As a result, you may have little or no access to your lawyer except during the actual court hearings. 



Public defenders often lack office equipment and the levels of research access that private attorneys have available. Public defenders also can rarely afford to hire investigators to collect evidence to support your case. 

On the other hand, many public defenders do not have the experience that many private practice attorneys do. Public defenders often “cut their teeth” on high-volume misdemeanor cases such as DWIs. 

A public defender also won’t be able to assist you with related civil law or administrative hearings, which are handled separately (such as driver’s license revocation hearings in a DWI case). Thus, you’ll need to hire a separate lawyer to help you with any of these concerns.


If You Have Problems With Your Public Defender

Once you’ve been appointed a public defender, it’s often very difficult to have your attorney replaced with another public defender. In order for the judge to grant a new attorney to represent you in your case, you will most likely have to convince them that the public defender is violating your right to adequate representation. Some examples of situations that fall under this are if your lawyer is:

  • Losing documents, missing appointments, and/or missing filing deadlines
  • Not informing you about your hearing dates and/or case status
  • Trying to force you to enter a plea
  • Ignoring evidence


If you’re having doubts about advice your public defender gives you, make an appointment for a “second opinion” consultation with a private criminal defense attorney. Most lawyers are willing to consult for a small fee, and you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing your public defender is on track. If this private defense attorney brings up any concerns, bring these issues up with the judge as soon as possible to try and initiate the transferral of your case.


If you found this article helpful, be sure to read Do I Qualify for a Public Defender?

Updated: November 23rd, 2016

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Revised: Feb. 11, 2016, 8:25 p.m.
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