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How to Become a Public Defender

November 2, 2023
5 min read


Reviewed by:

David Merson

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 11/2/23

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

Three female lawyers meeting together

Pursuing a career in public defense 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. 

Common Job Duties

Public defenders primary responsibility is to defend their clients in court. They are present at every stage of the legal process, from arraignments and hearings to trials and appeals. Public defenders also conduct investigations, interview witnesses, and review evidence to build a strong defense. 

They may negotiate plea agreements with prosecutors to resolve cases outside of trial. In essence, public defenders work tirelessly to uphold the principles of justice, ensuring that everyone, regardless of their financial situation, receives a fair and competent legal defense.

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

To apply to law school, you’ll typically need to submit your transcripts, put together a strong application, and provide your LSAT score results. 

Law school is competitive, so trying your best to achieve a high score is essential. 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 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. 

three young lawyers talking in an office

Skills Needed To Be a Public Defender

Each qualification for a public defender is important. However, there is also a range of skills that public defenders need to get ahead. Refining the following skills 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. 

young female lawyer walking down courthouse steps

How Much Do Public Defenders Make?

The average annual base pay for assigned counsel currently stands at $75,850. 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. $45,283 per year. Public defenders with years of experience earn an annual compensation of around U.S. $127,051.

Should You Become a Public Defender?

Deciding whether to pursue a career as a public defender is a big decision. Here are some important things to consider:

First, you must have a strong commitment to justice. The job of a public defender is to provide legal counsel to people who can't afford it. This means you'll be working with individuals often in difficult situations, so empathy and a genuine desire to help others are crucial.

Second, be prepared for a heavy workload. Public defenders typically have a lot of cases to handle, and the work can be stressful. You'll need good time management skills and the ability to handle the pressure of representing clients in court.

Make sure to think about the education and licensing requirements. To become a public defender, you'll need to go to law school, pass the bar exam in your state, and gain relevant legal experience.

Lastly, consider the financial aspects. Public defenders may not make as much money as private attorneys, so you'll need to consider your financial goals and whether this career path aligns with them.

Benefits of Being a Public Defender

Becoming a public defender can be an incredibly fulfilling career choice if you're truly passionate about defending the rights of individuals who can't afford legal representation. It's a chance to make a tangible and positive impact on the criminal justice system. 

Public defenders play a vital role in ensuring that everyone, regardless of their financial situation, receives fair and unbiased legal defense. By advocating for the rights and well-being of those facing criminal charges, public defenders contribute to a more equitable legal system. 

It's a profession that allows you to directly influence the lives of your clients and uphold the fundamental principles of justice.

Typical Work Schedule

A typical work schedule for a public defender can vary, but here's a general idea:

  • Office Hours: Public defenders usually work standard office hours, which are typically from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday. During this time, they handle administrative tasks, meet with clients, and prepare legal documents.
  • Court Appearances:They also spend a significant amount of time in court. They may have hearings, trials, and other court appearances scheduled throughout the workweek. Sometimes, court proceedings can extend beyond regular office hours, especially during trials.
  • Client Meetings: Public defenders meet with their clients to discuss cases, gather information, and provide legal advice. These meetings can happen during office hours or in the evenings to accommodate clients' schedules.
  • Case Preparation: This jobs requires dedicated time to research, investigation, and preparing their cases. This work often takes place outside regular office hours, as they need focused time to review evidence, interview witnesses, and build strong defense strategies.
  • On-Call Duties: Some public defenders may be on call to handle urgent matters, like arrests outside regular office hours. Being on call may require responding to emergencies during evenings or weekends.
  • Administrative Tasks: Public defenders also handle administrative duties, such as paperwork, case documentation, and court filings. These tasks are typically done during office hours.
  • Training and Professional Development: Public defenders often engage in ongoing training and professional development to stay updated on changes in the law and legal practices. This may involve attending workshops, seminars, or online courses.

Keep in mind that the workload of a public defender can be demanding, and they may need to adjust their schedules to meet their clients' needs and the demands of their caseload. Some public defenders work in shifts or teams to provide 24/7 coverage for clients requiring immediate assistance.

Comparison to Private Attorney

Public defenders and attorneys serve different segments of the legal profession. Public defenders primarily assist individuals who cannot afford legal representation and are paid by the government. 

Their caseloads are often substantial, covering various criminal cases, and they operate with government resources, although these resources may have limitations. Public defenders work in government offices, emphasizing teamwork, and typically receive a fixed income, offering job security.

On the other hand, private attorneys cater to clients who can pay for their services. They have the freedom to choose their cases and may specialize in various areas of law beyond criminal defense. 

Comparing Public Defender and Private Attorney Salaries

Private attorneys either work independently or within law firms, utilizing their or their firm's resources. While private attorneys have the potential for higher income, their earnings can vary significantly depending on their caseload and client base. Ultimately, the key distinction lies in who they assist and how they are compensated.

male lawyer working on phone and computer

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 California, where they can expect to earn approximately $103,899 per year.

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

California 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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