Before working as a paralegal for a federal public defender in Pennsylvania, I lived in Tennessee and worked as a paralegal for a criminal defense attorney in Nashville. While public defenders have law degrees and do work similar to criminal defense attorneys, there are significant differences between public defenders and private attorneys because of the clients they represent and the money they make.
Public Defenders: Some Care, Some Couldn’t Care Less
Federal public defenders work for the government. They get paid by the government and their clients are assigned to them when the clients can’t afford a lawyer of their own. Because every individual has the right to legal representation, a public defender picks up the slack and helps defend those in need. A good public defender takes on the challenge of their clients’ cases, even though they aren’t getting paid the large fees that attorneys normally make.
A good public defender does the job because he or she loves the work. These individuals work tirelessly to fight for their clients no matter what the circumstances may be. I currently work for an honorable public defender, and I’m proud that my boss cares deeply about the clients he serves; however, not all public defenders are good.
Many of them don’t put in any effort, and their clients are left feeling helpless and alone. This is because many public defenders feel like they aren’t paid enough for the many cases they have to handle.
Attorneys: for Money or for Justice?
The script can also be flipped on private attorneys, as well. Many attorneys, because they’re making a lot of money, will work diligently for their clients. They’re able to pick the clients they feel strongly about, and their clients can personally hire them, as well. The relationship is much stronger between client and lawyer, so the work becomes more enjoyable for everyone involved.
I’ve been lucky as a paralegal to have excellent bosses throughout my career, but I’ve seen evil men and women in the legal system along the way. Some attorneys who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year still don’t genuinely care about their clients at all. They do the job solely for the money.
Leveling the Playing Field
Unfortunately, a lot of people in this world work only for money as opposed to seeking justice. There’s no way to change the morals of an individual; however, increasing budgets for public defenders could level the playing field between the professions of attorneys and public defenders. Maybe then defendants of all socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds would receive more equal representation in the criminal justice system.