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Make a Career Change as Public Defender

published April 19, 2004

( 494 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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Public defenders have one of the toughest gigs in the legal industry - but also one of the most rewarding. Sacrificing the big paycheck to help those in need, public defenders find job satisfaction — and excellent training — amid some of the most emotionally-taxing circumstances.
 
Make A Career Change As Public Defender

Bored with your work? Becoming a public defender could solve that problem for you. Not a profession for the timid, standing up for those who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer ("indigent defense") is incredibly busy, often noble, sometimes disturbing, frequently underpaid and underappreciated - and never dull.

"It's the best job in the whole world," says Lee Coggiola, former public defender, now Chief Staff Attorney for the South Carolina Court of Appeals, Columbia.

Coggiola became a lawyer in a mid-career shift after working at IBM and caring for her young children. Out of law school, she clerked for a judge who became her mentor and guided her into indigent defense work.

Coggiola worked in indigent defense and criminal appeals for 15 years, and then spent five years as the Chief Public Defender of Richland County (which includes Columbia). In that office, 16 lawyers handled 7,300 cases a year. "That was lawyering - I felt like a lawyer," she says.

Richard Goemann was a public defender for eight years, first in Alexandria Va., then as Director of the public defender's office in Fairfax, Va., both in suburban Washington, D.C. Indigent defense is "the most important work a lawyer can do," he says.

Currently, Goemann is the head of the Virginia Public Defender Commission in Richmond.

It is important to represent people who are being singled out or vilified; it's "meaningful work," says Goemann, "it really made a difference in people's lives, [that's] very satisfying."

Being a defense attorney is not about agreeing with things the person may have done, but instead, it is about "respect for the law and the Constitution, and about treating people as human beings," says Goemann. It is easy to think of defendants as "those people," he says, but when you meet the defendant and talk one-on-one, you understand that this is a real person with real problems, "not just labels."

Coggiola's first trial as a public defender was a rape trial where, according to all the evidence against him, the defendant was guilty. She tried to get her client to plead guilty and get a lesser jail term, but he refused, insisting that they go to trial. Eventually, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Even knowing what might happen, "he had the right to be tried, and he chose that right," Coggiola says. After her closing arguments, she sat back down and saw that the defendant was crying. "He said, 'no one has ever stood up for me like that before,'" says Coggiola.

This is one of the pluses of doing this job: helping people who are not being helped by anyone else. Your colleagues will also add value to this profession - "there's no greater group than public defenders," says Coggiola.

Some of the hard parts of this job are also the reasons to do it…

Being the only person to stand by another can be its own reward.

Some poor people just assume that they will end up in prison or be killed, says Lee Coggiola. "It is hard to be poor," she says. Police officers do not go around knocking down the doors of the middle class and rooting through their homes, but this is not uncommon in poor communities, she says.

But what about the man who Coggiola defended who killed a woman and then threw her three-year-old child into an icy river? People would ask her: "How can you care about this man?"

The answer: There is a misperception that an indigent defender's job is to "get people off," says Coggiola, even when they are guilty. "That's not what I'm doing at all," she says. It is the public defender's job to make sure the process is fair - even for poor people. It is to make sure that the government follows the rules.

When she was a public defender, often her clients were "guilty of something involved with the incident," Coggiola says. The point of being an indigent defender is not to have the person found innocent; the point is to make sure the government plays fair.

Coggiola has seen prosecutors "overcharge" the accused, piling on charges that are not upheld by the evidence. A public defender works to get that pile whittled down to a fair outcome that fits the evidence that the government actually has.

Still, there was one type of case that Coggiola couldn't do: animal torture. She does not know why, with all the terrible things done to people that she heard of over the years, but with animal abuse, she says, "I just can't get past it."

Indigent defense cases are court ordered to an office, not an individual attorney, says Coggiola. Case assignments are determined within the office, as is the policy for 'difficult cases.'

While head of the Richland County, S.C., public defender's office, Coggiola would adjust the assignments "if one of the lawyers in my office really had a problem with a particular type of case," she says. "Amazingly, it was rare. We all knew what we were there to do."

…and some of the hard parts are just hard.

For Richard Goemann, one of the hardest parts of a job in indigent defense was the perception of some attorneys that, because the clients are poor, it is ok to "learn how to be a lawyer on them," he says. There is also a misconception that any lawyer can just walk into this job and start doing it, he says.

His message? "Please learn before you start dabbling; people's lives are at stake."

Lee Coggiola says the recurring systemic problem that loomed large in her work was the corrections system. With budgets being slashed, in South Carolina and in many other states, prisons have little education or retraining, little mental heath care, and little rehab of any kind.

Coggiola saw many mentally ill people as a public defender. Many of them would have been fine if they had been able to afford medication; because they were poor, they could not control their illnesses, committed crimes, and often went into prisons that could not afford medications for them either. "This is the hard part," she says.

Then there is probably the largest problem in indigent defense, from the clients to the attorneys to the states:

Money.

There is no money in defending the poor. As obvious as this is, the reality of it can hit hard. The majority of indigent defenders make between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. This is the main reason why attorneys drawn to this work only do it for two or three years after law school. With monthly loan payments of $600+ a month, on top of food and rent, many simply cannot afford to do this job for longer. "It's heartbreaking," says Lee Coggiola.

Aid on this front could come from a bill offering some student loan relief to those who commit to serve at least three years as a public defender or prosecutor. "The Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act" (S. 1091), introduced last May by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), has 19 cosponsors.

This bill is "incredibly important," says Richard Goemann. He, like Coggiola, has seen staff leave public defense work due to rising loan repayment costs. Prosecutors already get some loan forgiveness, he says. This bill would even out the playing field, and give both specialties another leg up as well.

Specifically, the bill calls for attorneys who serve as public defenders for as least three years to receive up to $6,000 per year on their Stafford loans, capped at a total of $40,000 per attorney. This amount could be reduced by pro-rating the benefit if the federal money appropriated does not cover the full amount.

Perkins loan forgiveness, already extended to prosecutors, will be given to public defenders if this bill goes through. For five years of service, both specialties can see complete Perkins loan forgiveness.

Some law schools, too, are leading the way on loan forgiveness and aid for graduates who go into public service. Harvard University has "incredible loan forgiveness," says Alexa Shabecoff, Assistant Dean for Public Interest Advising at Harvard's Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising.

That office is a separate career services office (the law school has two), funded by endowment, for Harvard Law students interested in pursuing careers in government, non-profits, unions, public defense, prosecution, foundations, and other public service law.

Harvard will forgive all law school and some undergraduate loans (on a debt-to-income assessment) for law graduates that go into public service law, including indigent defense, says Shabecoff.

Personal finance is not the only money issue. Government funding for indigent defense programs in the states has been hit hard in recent years by cuts in state and federal budgets.

For example, Virginia gets a failing grade for indigent defense from a new study commissioned by the American Bar Association, released February 2. The state's system provides "little more than assembly-line justice," according to the study, conducted by The Spangenberg Group of West Newton, MA.

"Inadequate resources and no oversight structure are the two primary factors behind a system that fails to provide lawyers with tools, time and incentives to adequately represent defendants," says an ABA release discussing the study. [Go to www.abanet.org to view the entire study. Go to www.spangenberggroup.com/ to see more reports on state indigent defense systems.]

Virginia is not alone in this boat, says Goemann, who saw public defenders handling 100 cases simultaneously - each - while he was head of the Fairfax, Va. public defender's office. This is partly because there are no mandated caseload limits in the state, he says. Other areas, such as Massachusetts or the District of Columbia, have these mandated limits, so attorneys handle 30 or 40 cases at a time.

Other localities are using the courts to improve the courts where the legislature will not act - such as a ruling last year in New York City saying that the payment levels of public defenders violates defendants' constitutional rights (New York County Lawyers' Association v. The State of New York, 102987/00, February 3, 2003).

Payment for public defenders in the city had been $25 per hour for out-of-court work and $40 per hour for in-court work. The ruling called for payments of $90 per hour for all public defender work in New York State until the state legislature could take up the issue and change the rate-setting guidelines.

Where you can go from this job.

There is a perception among some law students that going into indigent defense right out of law school will hinder their progress into private firms, says Paul Woo, Associate Director for Recruitment and Information Management at the University of Chicago Law School.

While this could be partly true, the most important thing to moving on in any career is your experience and your success at your work, says Woo. He hears from former students who are tired of what they do and who say they want to move on. If the person has not done well at that position, moving on can be "a tougher transition," he says.

Also, no matter how prestigious your law school, you need patience with any lateral job move. "It takes time," counsels Woo.

The perception of immobility is not accurate, Richard Goemann says. "Knowing your way around a court room is valuable" for any kind of future litigation job, he says. Being able to think on your feet, do research, and try cases are skills that will serve you well in all areas of law.

Even without citing herself as an example of where you can go after indigent defense, Lee Coggiola says there are plenty of high-level jobs you can find. Supreme Court justice, for one.

Costas Pleicones was a public defender in South Carolina before he went on to sit on the South Carolina State Supreme Court, says Coggiola. Several other judges in the state started off in indigent defense, as well.

Coggiola agrees that large private law firms often want to recruit attorneys right out of law school so that they are "fresh on the partner track." However, even if you have already gone this route, indigent defense work could still be an option for you.

When she was Chief Public Defender, Coggiola worked out a deal with one of the large firms in the area to lend her a lawyer for six months. The firm paid the lawyer, and Coggiola's office trained him as a litigator, requiring the loaner attorney to sit second seat on at least two trials. "They loved it!" she says.

Many states have contracts with attorneys in private practice to do indigent defense, especially in rural counties, says Sarah Yatsko, Program Administrator of the Washington Defender Association, Seattle. If you are already in private practice, you could investigate this route to doing indigent defense.

Plus, Yatsko says she sees many attorneys start out doing public defense work and move on to work in private firms, or open up their own shops. In fact, if you want to do criminal work at all, starting out in public defense "would serve you well," she says. It's an "excellent stepping stone."

Before you go, some advice.

If you are inspired to pursue this incredibly difficult, highly rewarding career path, here is some advice to consider:

1. If your heart is in it - do it! Paul Woo says that if you are enthusiastic and committed, then you will have a good and productive career.

2. You have two summers to work with in law school, plus work-study and internship opportunities. Get a job or volunteer in a public defender's office to see what the job is really like, says Woo. Get experience, learn, network.

3. Join a clinical training program if your law school offers one, says Richard Goemann, who, in addition to his practice experience, taught in a clinical law program in Washington, DC. for three years. If your school does not have a clinical program, intern.

4. If you are already an attorney and are considering a career shift, "invest in a good trial skills course," says Goemann. Plus, you can volunteer, and try to find a mentor to guide you. Sometimes, too, public defender offices do have money set aside for training new hires.

5. It's not like you see on TV, warns Alexa Shabecoff. Make sure this job fits your personality before you dive in. You need to enjoy - and also hold up well - being "engaged in combat," she says. You need to not mind adversarial situations. This does not necessarily mean you need to be aggressive - just able to handle the fire.

6. Also - be prepared for an unpopular career choice, says Shabecoff. You need to know that you are doing good work, no matter what people say about your clients. You have to want to represent the underdog.

7. Plan for your debt, recommends Shabecoff.

8. Keep your future client in mind; you cannot represent them well if you cannot communicate with them. Learn how to talk to indigent clients and people from other countries, say our experts.

See current attorney chief public job openings on LawCrossing.

Please see the following articles for more information about jobs related to criminal law:
 
Please see the following articles for more information about jobs related to public interest law:
 
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