Many people do not understand that a public defender is an attorney and an attorney is a lawyer. The perception is often that lawyers who become public defenders are inexperienced, incompetent or just don’t care. This could not be farther from the truth.
While it is true that if you hire an attorney for hundreds of dollars an hour, they will likely have more time to meet with you and work on your case than a public defender with a large caseload, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will get a better outcome or that the representation is better. We here at Southwestern Oregon Public Defender Services take pride in providing high quality representation to our indigent clients. Our attorneys have made a conscious choice to represent you rather than work in private practice and, while we each have our own reasons for doing so, we all agree that justice is for everyone not just for the wealthy!
You should also be aware that Oregon has standards that attorneys must meet before they can be appointed to represent indigent clients. While an attorney in private practice can pass the bar, open a law office and take on any case without any experience, a public defender cannot. As a public defender fresh out of law school, we are supervised by experienced attorneys to ensure we are competent to handle cases before we will be allowed to take on a case independently. In fact, it can take a new public defender several years of supervised casework before they would be allowed to represent someone on a serious felony charge.
Another critical difference is that, as public defenders, we are not in any way motivated by how much money your case can bring to our firm. Our passion is in holding the state to its burdens and ensuring each of our clients is treated fairly and with dignity.
Public defenders do tend to have more clients than attorneys in private practice. We also spend more time in court which can mean more experience in dealing with contested hearings. We are also in frequent contact with state’s attorneys or district attorneys which can benefit you because we have established relationships and can anticipate their behavior better than those who only have passing contact with them.
You can help your attorney by staying in touch with them and ensuring that if your phone number or address change, you provide that information to them. It is also important that you have your voice mail set up so that if your attorney attempts to reach you, they will be able to leave you a message. Updates can be provided to your attorney’s support staff and they can answer some questions for you like when your next court date is. Support staff can also schedule an office appointment for you or a telephone appointment for you. If you have trouble reaching your attorney, be sure to let support staff know because they may be able to explain what is going on, maybe your attorney is in trial, or maybe they are out of the office. Clear and polite communication is critical in ensuring you have a good relationship with your attorney.