What is it like being a public defender?

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We asked attorneys from across the country what it's like being a public defender. A public defender doesn't get recognized like a high profile defense attorney. But they are doing just as an important job as anyone else in the judicial system. We are happy to share their responses with you. If you have your own thoughts about being a public defender, please feel free to share them in the comments below the article.

Exhausting and Exhilarating!

I work in NYC as a public defender, one of the busiest hubs in the world. I was with the Legal Aid Society originally doing exclusively criminal defense work, and now get court-assigned work as a public defender from the City (also Federal government.)

-Toni Messina, Esq.

What is it like being a public defender?
I was a public defender in the Franklin County Municipal Court in Columbus, Ohio for the first five years of my career. Day to day, I really enjoyed the work. There was a great camaraderie among the public defenders, prosecutors, judges and court staff that made it an enjoyable work environment.

The job was both fulfilling and disheartening in many ways. I helped many clients who ended up in court for reasons somewhat beyond their control. For example, clients pulled over for driving without insurance who then became caught in a cycle of mounting fees that they could not pay, but had no other means of getting back and forth to work. On the other hand, I saw many repeat clients who came back again and again on the same or similar charges.

From a professional standpoint, the experience was invaluable. I started my own criminal defense firm in 2011 and would not have had the confidence to hang my own shingle had I not handled thousands of cases as a public defender. Because of the broad trial and courtroom experience gained as a public defender, I was confident to start my own practice and confident to handle any case and any client.

-Douglas E. Riddell, Esq.

I was a public defender from 1980- 1982. Being a public defender was extremely stressful. It required having a firm grasp of the criminal law and procedure. Being public defender also required more creativity. This was so because a public defender knew he or she was at a significant disadvantage. The prosecutor's office had almost every conceivable resource at its disposal. The prosecutor's office had more staff lawyers. It had a paralegal, it had secretaries. It had investigators and victim and witness advocates. It had the local police department at its disposal. It could seek assistance from the State Attorney General's Office. It was better funded and judges tended to be pro-prosecution.

Since a public defender lacks the necessary financial and human resources, he or she must be more creative in putting together a defense.

One learns quickly that all people deserve equal access to their constitutional rights. These are rights that must be protected. As an advocate for a criminal defendant, a large part of my job was making sure my clients had their constitutional rights aggressively protected. Unfortunately doing so does not make you very popular with the policemen. In those days, I was harassed by disgruntled policemen. But preserving a single client's right in a single case helps ensure that everyone continues to have their rights protected.

Being a public defender was the most challenging job I have ever had. It really is a great way to learn to be a trial lawyer.

-Ramsey A. Bahrawy, Esq. Bahrawy Law Offices

Public Defending is a unique experience as far as attorney work goes. During the span of 6 years as a public defender, I represented a very diverse and colorful group of thousands of clients in LA and Riverside Counties in Southern California. The single commonality among all my clients was that they lacked the financial resources to pay a private attorney. Each client had a different story and unique circumstances that landed them in the criminal court, and it was my job to make the best out of an otherwise regrettable situation.

Most of my clients were honest, good people who just made a bad decision or two. Many of those poor choices were the result of alcohol, drugs, mental health issues or some combination of the three. I found that many of my clients were solid parents, dedicated spouses, dear friends and active community members who had a lapse in judgment. Public defender work was my lesson that human beings are more than their poor choices or actions. It was my job to make sure the prosecutor, judge and jury saw my clients as human beings, not "criminals" to be condemned to years of incarceration based on an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment.

Some clients have more frequent encounters with the law, usually a result of more severe drug addiction, mental health issues or poverty and homelessness. The frequent offenders pose some of the most significant challenges. Our legal system is not set up to adequately address the root causes of criminal conduct; instead the typical state solution involves punitive measures, usually incarceration. Once someone has been imprisoned for multiple terms, it becomes much more likely that they spend the majority of their adult life passing in and out of the revolving door of the prison system. I've learned that incarceration is a big business, about $8 billion in California alone.

My role in the system became to keep as many people as possible out of those prisons, because incarceration did nothing to create justice, to compensate victims of crimes, or to rehabilitate a criminal offender. I came to resent prisons as places where minorities would rot in custody at rates much higher than those of their white counterparts. In my opinion, incarceration is a tool that promotes discrimination and racism and needs to be reassessed in light of the demographic realities of the prison population.

-Tarek Shawky
Law Office of Tarek Shawky

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Constitutional Rights      Tarek Shawky      Bahrawy Law Offices      Esq.      Toni Messina     

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