When you are facing criminal charges, determining your legal representation becomes an essential next step. How do you determine whether you should hire a private attorney or use a public defender, if this option is available to you?

You have the right to speak with an attorney before talking to the police and you have the right to legal representation, regardless of ability to pay. If you cannot afford to hire a private attorney, you may ask the court to appoint a public defender to represent you. The determination of eligibility for a court-appointed public defender is dependent upon income and handled by the local court.

For many people, using a public defender is the only option. There are no viable resources to come up with the funds for a private attorney. For others, it may be challenging but possible to acquire the funds to hire a private attorney, even when eligibility for court-appointed legal representation are met.

Making an informed decision:  What are the differences between a Private Attorney and a Public Defender?

1) Workload and time: Unfortunately, public defenders are often burdened by extremely large caseloads. Facing the frustrations of a heavy workload, they may not have the time to put into your case to manage it the way they would like to. It may be difficult for them to take additional calls and questions and offer the attention and support you seek. This is an aspect of working with a public defender that results in many complaints.

Private attorneys have more autonomy to choose their cases and generally more time available for their clients. If you are looking for an attorney who can have more face time with you and be more available for meetings and calls outside of court and throughout your case, you would be better served by private counsel.

2) Experience: As with any group of professionals, there is a range of experience. Public defenders are licensed attorneys and many are quite skilled and experienced. It is often assumed that a private attorney is more knowledgeable and experienced. This is often the case, but certainly not as a rule. It is important to consider all factors in determining whether to hire a private attorney or opt for the public defender if the choice is available to you.

3) Selection: With private counsel, you can be selective and you should be. You can opt for a consultation and meet the attorney in person before making a decision to hire. You can ask the questions you want to ask and determine if it feels like a good fit for you. This is a major limitation of working with a public defender. You do not get to select your own attorney. A public defender is appointed for you by the court and you do not have a role in the selection process.

4) Restrictions: Public defenders are restricted to criminal matters only. If there is a non-criminal matter associated with your case, you will need to deal with it on your own or seek alternative counsel. For example, if you are using a public defender for a DUI, they cannot handle your DOL hearing. Public defenders are court-appointed and the court may have other rules or restrictions around their usage.

 5) Results: With more time and resources available for private attorneys to attend to their individual clients and their unique needs, it is generally thought that private counsel will achieve superior results. However, a public defender is a very good choice when it is not financially feasible to consider hiring a high-quality private attorney.

If you are facing criminal charges you should not try to tackle them without experienced counsel to advise you appropriately and advocate on your behalf.