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How to Become a Public Defender

August 22, 2023

Are you interested in learning how to become a public defender? If so, you’ve come to the right place! 

Pursuing a career in public defence is a noble path. Public defenders play a key role in society by advocating for individuals impacted by the criminal justice system. They’re also called court-appointed attorneys, court-appointed lawyers, and assigned counsel.

Read on to learn the ins and outs of how to become a public defender. This guide will cover everything you need to know, from how long it takes to become a public defender to how much they make.

What Do Public Defenders Do?

Public defenders uphold justice by providing legal counsel to accused individuals, commonly called indigent defense. A person who cannot afford legal representation in court is said to be indigent.

Regardless of financial situation, anyone facing legal accusations has a right to legal representation under the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, public defenders are paid by the government to represent clients who can’t afford legal representation.

Steps to Becoming a Public Defender

It's a challenging feat to become a public defender. The process requires years of education and a great deal of hard work. Individuals serious about pursuing a career as a public defender must complete the following steps. 

Graduate With an Undergraduate Degree

The majority of law schools require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree. There is no specific major applicants need to graduate with. So as long as you graduate from an undergraduate program, you can apply to law school. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many students hold bachelor's degrees in government, history, or economics. It’s helpful to acquire a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or political science, to acquaint yourself with the legal system. 

Complete the LSAT

Most law schools require applicants to submit their transcripts, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) results, and applications. Law school is competitive, so trying your best to achieve a high score is important. High-ranking law schools are more likely to accept candidates with scores of 160 or higher.

The LSAT gauges a student's capacity for analytical reasoning, reading comprehension, and critical thought. It’s important to study hard and give yourself ample time to prepare. The LSAT can be stressful, but it’s possible to ace it! Private LSAT tutoring is a great way to set yourself up for success. 

Graduate Law School

Law schools typically take three years to complete. The first year comprises key legal concepts, such as contract, tort, property, and constitutional law. Students must grasp these subjects before moving on to electives, internships, and clinics in their second and third years of law school. 

If available, it’s helpful to choose a concentration in criminal law. If not, you can focus your electives, internships, and clinics on criminal law. Many law schools offer a range of criminal law internships, such as Harvard. These are valuable learning opportunities to gain hands-on experience. 

Pass the Bar Exam

Before working as a public defender, you must be admitted to the bar association of the state you're practicing in. In most cases, you must pass the bar exam to be admitted. 

Most bar exams are divided into multiple days and consist of multiple-choice and essay-style questions. Torts, real estate, contracts, criminal, constitutional, and evidence law are covered.

The bar exam is challenging; fortunately, there are tried and true methods you can follow. Studying hard for the bar exam is important to achieve a passing grade. Build a study schedule well before the exam, and get organized. Mitigate stress as much as possible. 

Pass the MPRE

Most states require applicants to the bar association also to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). It evaluates candidates' familiarity with and comprehension of the rules that govern the ethical behavior of lawyers. 

The MPRE takes two hours to complete and consists of 60-question multiple-choice questions. The opportunity to take it comes up three times a year. 

Consider Additional Study

Once you’ve acquired some work experience as a lawyer, you can choose to go back to school to further your education. Many law schools offer Master of Laws (LLM) degree programs that can add value to your career as a public defender, such as federal criminal law practice and procedure, criminal law, or trial advocacy.

These programs help equip public defenders for a promising career by providing them with advanced knowledge of the inner workings of the legal system. Students gain insight into federal sentencing, criminal investigation law, evidence, advocacy, and criminal pre-trial practice.

Skills Needed To Be a Public Defender

Public defenders need a range of skills to excel. Refining the following will help you along your way to becoming a top-tier public defender. 

Thorough Legal Research

Public defenders must be able to conduct extensive legal research by analyzing documentation, physical records,  and external sources. They need to be able to back up their cases with in-depth research. 

Interpersonal Skills

Court-appointed lawyers work with people from all walks of life. As a result, they need to hone their interpersonal skills. They need to be able to communicate clearly and learn to listen actively. It's also beneficial for public defenders to have empathy and the ability to interpret others' emotions. 

These skills help court-appointed lawyers provide strong support to their clients and understand the emotional nuances of their cases. They can also aid public defenders in fostering connections with colleagues. 

Strong Public Speaking

Court-appointed attorneys need to be able to present their thoughts in an impactful way. Speaking clearly and confidently helps court-appointed attorneys effectively advocate for their clients. Public defenders must therefore be able to rely on good public speaking abilities.

Remain Calm Under Pressure 

Working as a court-appointed attorney is no walk in the park. A public defender's job can come with a lot of strain and involve extensive legal proceedings. So public defenders must understand how to operate in high-stress situations. A key part of this skill is to be able to react decisively and think on your feet.

How Much Do Public Defenders Make?

The average annual base pay for assigned counsel currently stands at $71,239. The amount public defenders are eligible to receive depends on their experience level, education, and the state where they practice.

Entry-level public defenders can expect to earn approximately U.S. $42,585 per year. Public defenders with years of experience earn an annual compensation of around U.S. $119,173.

FAQs: How To Become a Public Defender

Hopefully, you have a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to become a public defender. Read on to fill in any gaps in your knowledge!

1. How Long Does It Take To Become a Public Defender?

It takes roughly seven years to become a public defender, accounting for your undergraduate degree and law school. 

2. Where Do Public Defenders Make the Most Money?

Court-appointed lawyers are reported to make the most money in Chicago, Illinois, where they can expect to earn approximately $112,020 per year.

3. What Is the Best State To Be a Public Defender?

Chicago is a fantastic state to pursue a career as a public defender if you want to make a substantial income.

Final Thoughts

Though it requires a great deal of hard work and determination, working as a public defender can be a highly rewarding career. 

After gaining insight into what it takes to become a public defender, you will understand whether it's the right path. 

Good luck!

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