Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

The Public Defender Myth

Posted by Maggie on January 2, 2008

A particular headling really irked me this morning. It’s from the AP and reprinted on the Daily Report and reads, Low-paid public defender beats odds in getting injection case before high court.” Can someone explain to me why it’s necessary to include the words “low-paid” in that headline? Is it supposed to make the story better in some way? Even worse, the following paragraph appears late in the article:

Public defenders work one of the lowest rungs of the legal profession, one that is often not very highly regarded by other lawyers. Many young lawyers right out of law school often get their start as public defenders, and often race from case to case with barely enough time to read the file, much less do the in-depth investigation attorneys in private practice can do.

There is also a gratuitous reference to the attorney’s tiny office. Look, I’ll be the first one to jump in and agree that PD’s are underpaid. (Especially compared to DA’s, who do comparable work for usually more money.) But it always seems to happen that when PD’s are mentioned in the media, two things are always mentioned: they are underpaid and overworked. These references do nothing to help the profession.

Salaries are starting to go up, though it happens more in some places than others. Hopefully the new federal loan repayment program will help people out more. And yes, caseloads are often abysmal–I speak from a former caseload of over 700 open cases, the great majority of them felonies. But instead of these issues cited to try and garner support for PD’s, they are usually used critically. As if only crappy attorneys can be PD’s and that they’re really not worth much anyway because they have so many clients.

It is possible to be underpaid and overworked and still be one of the best lawyers around. In fact, a dedication to that kind of job should show that you’re a better lawyer and that you care about your clients. Meanwhile, DA’s get much better myths, like that they’re fighters for justice, and that they’re obsessed with helping crime victims. I can’t imagine the headline: Underpaid DA wins case. It’s as if the media is shocked that a PD actually succeeded at something. They’re certainly not helping anyone get rid of that Public Pretender stigma.

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One Response to “The Public Defender Myth”

  1. Chuck said

    What a sad article.

    However, the problem with disparity in wages is somewhat unique to Georgia. At least when I worked in Florida, the starting wages for PDs and State Attorney’s were exactly the same. A lot of times the State Attorneys would move through the ranks faster but at least they started out at the same rate.

    The problem with the Public Defender system here is so serious that I honestly don’t even know where to begin. It is something that needs some very serious attention, though, because those of us working as PDs do so knowing that we are basically volunteering. And when I say that I mean that we could very easily go to another job and instantly double our yearly salary.

    That said I still love the job! Obviously I’m not doing it for the money.

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