How to Become a Public Defender (Meaning, Steps, Job, FAQs)

As a public defender, you can make a real difference in people’s lives, ensuring everyone receives fair and equal representation in the criminal justice system regardless of their financial situation.

Zippia says that more than 9,470 public lawyers work in the United States. 54.9% of public lawyers are women, and 45.1% are men.

This article explains everything you need to know about a Public Defender, the benefits, and the related FAQs.

Who is a Public Defender?

A public defender is a lawyer the court appoints to represent defendants who cannot afford private counsel.

If you are facing criminal charges but cannot afford legal representation, you may be able to get help from a public defender.

Defendants who cannot afford a private attorney and ask for a public defender will be provided with one. As a result, the defendant saves the cost of hiring an attorney, which can quickly add up.

Is Being a Public Defender A Good Career Path?

Yes, it is. Public defenders defend the poor who have been accused of crimes.

Public defenders must often juggle hundreds of cases simultaneously, which may tax their time and energy tremendously.

On the other hand, those who are committed to changing the criminal justice system may find their work extremely satisfying.

As a result, many public defenders have previously worked in the criminal justice system (via a clerkship or externship), which helps them determine if this is the right career route.

As a public defender, you can often find a wonderful opportunity to focus on a particular area of law.

Many public attorneys try to defend clients facing particular offenses, despite having a high caseload overall.

Due to their large volume of work and narrow focus, these practitioners usually rapidly become experts in their chosen field of law.

More so, public defenders are zealous champions of fairness. They can push for change in the criminal justice system by challenging existing inequities and advocating for fair treatment.

What Does A Public Defender Do?

1. Representation of a Client:

Public defenders have clients from the arraignment to the trial and sentencing phases of the criminal justice system. This involves researching and drafting legal documents and arguing cases in court.

2. Case investigation:

The job of a public defender includes researching their clients’ cases, interviewing witnesses, and figuring out how to defend them best. A solid defense plan must be based on a thorough case study.

3. Negotiating plea bargains:

In exchange for the defendant’s guilty or nolo contendere plea in a criminal case, the prosecution may offer certain concessions in the form of a plea bargain.

Public defenders routinely function as intermediaries between their clients and the prosecution in plea bargaining proceedings.

To accomplish this, one must possess in-depth legal knowledge, be well-versed in the client’s circumstances, and have excellent negotiation abilities.

Public defenders counsel their clients by outlining their legal rights and options in light of the charges against them.

In addition to guiding their clients through the legal procedure, they educate them on the consequences of their choices.

5. Collaborating with other professionals:

Public defenders consult specialists like forensic scientists, psychologists, and investigators to bolster their cases. Working with such experts might be crucial to constructing a solid case.

Benefits of Being A Public Defender:

1. Justice:

A public defender’s work can significantly impact their client’s life. Public defenders ensure that all citizens have access to justice by representing individuals who cannot afford private counsel.

2. Satisfaction:

A poll of over 6,000 lawyers found that those who made the least money were also the happiest.

It’s connected to the satisfaction of accomplishing a noble goal, like assisting the poor or defending fundamental liberties.

How to Become a Public Defender

1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree:

Getting a bachelor’s degree in a field related to your goal is the first order of business.

There’s no need to major in anything in particular, but courses in criminal justice, political science, or pre-law can set you up nicely for a career in law.

2. Enroll in law school

If you want to work as a public defender, you should attend a law school with a solid reputation and accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Joining a criminal defense group or clinic can help you obtain experience and contacts in the field while you’re still in law school.

3. Pass the Bar Exam:

The bar exam is a strenuous test of your legal knowledge and ability to apply it to simulated scenarios.

In certain jurisdictions, passing the bar exam isn’t enough; candidates must also pass a character and fitness review or ethics exam.

After completing these steps, you’ll be qualified to work as a public defender and begin your legal career.

4. Gain practical experience:

Gaining criminal defense experience is useful after passing the bar test.

Gain practical experience in criminal law by working as a public defender’s assistant or as a legal clerk at a criminal law practice.

5. Apply for public defender positions:

You are now qualified to apply for public defender positions after gaining relevant work experience.

Find out what jobs are available in your preferred state or country, and apply with a CV, cover letter, and any relevant writing samples.

6. Interview and secure a position:

Prepare appropriately for the interview by learning as much as you can about the company and running through sample interview questions.

Put out your interest in public defense, your experience in the field, and your dedication to fairness as selling points.

Your efforts to become a public defender will be rewarded with a job offer and the chance to change people’s lives.

How To Be A Successful Public Defender

1. Excellent communication skills:

You need to be able to articulate your position and goals to clients, judges, and prosecutors. Advocating for your clients effectively requires you to present arguments, negotiate plea deals, and write persuasive briefs.

A public defender’s ability to study and write persuasive legal documents, such as motions and briefs, and to effectively convey their findings in court, is essential.

The ability to pay close attention to detail and express intricate legal concepts clearly and concisely is crucial.

3. Empathy and compassion:

Public defenders frequently encounter vulnerable clients going through challenging situations in their line of business.

You can better represent your client’s interests and earn their trust with genuine compassion for them and their circumstances.

Compassion and empathy for your clients can help you earn their trust, learn about their circumstances, and represent them effectively.

4. Critical thinking and problem-solving:

A large portion of a public defender’s caseload consists of representing helpless clients in difficult situations.

5. Courtroom presence and advocacy:

Public defenders must have the courtroom skills to present arguments, cross-examine witnesses, and argue for their clients.

Protecting your clients’ rights in court requires developing a commanding presence in the courtroom and persuasive advocacy skills.

6. Time management and organizational skills:

Public defenders frequently juggle numerous cases simultaneously and work under severe time constraints.

Effective caseload management, task prioritization, and timely completion require exceptional time management and organizational skills.

7. Cultural competence:

Lawyers that represent the public represent clients from all walks of life.

Trustworthiness and efficient advocacy require cultural competence, as does the ability to comprehend and appreciate the opinions of those from different backgrounds.

What You Should Know About Being A Public Defender

1. High caseloads:

Many public defenders have too many clients for them to represent anyone properly. Thus, giving each instance the individualized care and research it deserves may be challenging.

2. Limited resources:

Because of budget cuts, public defenders’ offices often lack the means to conduct thorough investigations or retain credible expert witnesses. This can affect the level of service delivered to clients.

3. Emotional toll:

Public defenders may feel emotionally drained from representing clients who have suffered trauma or face serious repercussions. Self-care and reaching out for help when you need it are both fundamental.

4. Public perception:

There is a widespread bias against public defenders and increased scrutiny from the public. Changing people’s minds and convincing them of the value of their effort can be difficult.

5. Long hours and high stress:

Public defenders are often required to work late into the night and on the weekends to satisfy client deadlines and provide effective representation.

High stress and burnout are possible results of the strenuous nature of the profession.

6. Balancing ethical obligations:

Public defenders face complex ethical dilemmas when defending clients who could be guilty of the crimes for which they stand charged.

It can be challenging for lawyers to balance serving their clients and upholding the law.

Benefits of a Career as a Public Defender

1. Professional growth:

Working as a public defender will allow you to learn new things and grow professionally. Taking on complex cases and learning from them will help you grow as a lawyer.

2. Building meaningful relationships:

Public defenders frequently develop deep, trusting connections with their clients and families. The clients and public defenders can learn a lot from one another.

3. Variety of cases:

Public defenders take on matters ranging from traffic violations to capital murder. The wide range of specializations available in criminal law is a direct result of this diversity.

4. Networking opportunities:

Working as a public defender allows you to develop strong professional connections throughout the legal community. Having such a large social and professional circle at your disposal can do wonders for your life.

5. Job satisfaction:

Despite the challenges, many people who work in public defense find their jobs to be incredibly satisfying.

They have a sense of purpose and accomplishment because they fight for justice and improve people’s lives.

How Much Does A Public Defender Earn?

Public defenders are attorneys who work in the criminal justice system to represent people who cannot afford private representation.

For as long as people need legal representation, there will be a call for public defenders.

According to Indeed, the average salary for a public defender is $73,303 per year in the United States.

Where Can Aspiring Public Defenders Work?

OrganizationNature Of Job
1.National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA)Educational opportunities exist for those interested in working as public defenders in many areas. Mentorship and practical experience are two of the many benefits offered by these courses.
2.American Bar Association (ABA)Aspiring public defenders can find useful resources, such as information on law schools, career assistance, and networking events, through the American Bar Association (ABA).
3.Public Defender Training ProgramsEducational opportunities exist for those interested in working as public defenders in many areas. Mentorship and practical experience are two of the many benefits offered by these courses.
4.Legal Aid and Public Defender OfficesConsult your law school’s career services office for advice on becoming a public defender. Resources, job advertisements, and tips on how to improve your application materials are all available there.
5.Law School Career ServicesThere are educational opportunities for those interested in working as public defenders in many areas. Mentorship and practical experience are two of the many benefits offered by these courses.

FAQs on How to Become a Public Defender

Which states pay public defenders the most?

California, New York, Texas, Nevada, and Alaska

Are public defenders free in the US?

People who cannot afford a lawyer but have been accused of a crime that could land them in jail are entitled to free legal representation under the Constitution. If you find yourself in this position, your first court appearance is the time to ask for the appointment of a public defender.

How many times can you retake the Bar exam in the UK?

You have three attempts at each assessment since the point at which you enrolled.


People who want to work as public defenders typically have a few things in common, including a caring nature, an interest in the law and the judicial system, a flair for persuasion, and a cool head under pressure.

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Paschal Uchechukwu
Paschal Uchechukwu

Paschal Uchechukwu Christain is a professional and passionate SEO writer on Education, including homeschool, college tips, high school, and travel tips.

He has been writing articles for over 5 years. He is the Chief Content Officer at School & Travel.

Paschal Uchechukwu Christain holds a degree in Computer Science from a reputable institution. Also, he is passionate about helping people get access to online money-making opportunities.

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