Private Attorney vs. Public Defender: Choosing the Right Defense Attorney
As anyone who has heard the Miranda warning read in movies or television shows knows, when you are arrested for a crime, you have the right to an attorney. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, among other things, affords you the right to “the Assistance of Counsel” in your defense in criminal prosecutions. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, regardless of the severity, it is imperative that you are well represented. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of hiring a private attorney versus receiving the unpaid assistance of a public defender.
The Public DefenderA public defender is an attorney that the court appoints to represent you in your criminal defense. You will receive a public defender if you can’t afford to hire a private attorney, or if you request that a public defender be appointed to you. Depending on the jurisdiction of the case, the public defender will either be an employee of the state or federal government. One of the biggest advantages of a public defender is that there is no cost to the accused.
Public defenders, despite lower salaries and higher workloads, are typically highly competent attorneys. Public defender jobs are often competitive, and those selected are usually fairly qualified. Because of their heavy caseloads, public defenders quickly gain extensive experience and expertise in a variety of areas of criminal law. Because of this experience, they may develop a rapport with judges and prosecutors that a private defense attorney may not have. Additionally, most public defenders are passionate about their work and are not in the profession for money or notoriety.
However, one of the biggest disadvantages to having a public defender is that you don’t get to select your own attorney. Trusting a complete stranger, possibly with your freedom may not be reassuring or comforting. In addition, as mentioned above, public defenders have a heavy caseload, typically with thousands of misdemeanors and felonies on their dockets per year, and earn less than private lawyers. As a result, public defenders usually end up overworked and underpaid.
Because public defenders may have hundreds of cases at a time, there may be limited amounts of time to actually meet with clients, and they may encourage those accused of a crime to reach a plea deal in order to handle their large caseload. Additionally, public defenders inevitably have less time than a private attorney to research, formulate, and present the best defenses for their clients.
The Private AttorneyThe biggest, and maybe one of the only disadvantages to hiring a private attorney, is the cost. A private attorney may have a fixed rate to represent an accuse in a criminal matter—for example, a defense attorney may charge $1,500 to represent someone in a DUI case—or charge an hourly rate, which can easily be upwards of $200-$400 per hour depending on the attorney’s experience.
Private attorneys, however, do not have the caseload that public defenders have, and can spend more time with you, one-on-one, preparing your defense. Usually, a private attorney has more time, incentive, and resources to mount a strong legal defense in your case. Additionally, private attorneys often have access to investigators, expert witnesses, private laboratories, and other paid resources to help aid in their client’s defense.
Additionally, in private practice, the results attorneys obtain for their clients is an integral part of establishing their reputation, gaining more clients, and ultimately, the success of their business or firm. So they have every incentive to represent you to the best of their ability, and will often not suggest a plea deal unless it is in your best interests.
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