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We are excited to have our first guest blog post from Jonathan Esten of Esten Law of Manasass, Virginia.

Can My Public Defender Help Me or Do I Need to Hire an Attorney?

No single attorney is the right attorney for every client, for every case. If you are facing charges, you want to go to court with an attorney you are comfortable with: an attorney you know understands the law, the facts, and your goals in that case. If the court offers to assign you a “free attorney,” should you take it?

The short answer, right off the top, is this: If you qualify for a public defender or a court appointed attorney, take it and give ‘em a chance. If you don’t like the attorney the court appoints for you, you can hire your own. But if you don’t like the attorney you hire, the court almost certainly won’t appoint a replacement.

I work both sides of this equation. I spent six years as a public defender, and in addition to my current private practice I also accept court appointed work for defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney. To be attorneys we have to take an oath to represent each and every client to the best of our ability – the paying client gets the same legal advice and services as the court-appointed client. Almost all, if not all, attorneys who volunteer some of their time (or all of it, in the case of public defenders) to help people who cannot afford to hire an attorney do so out of a deeply held belief in this country’s Constitutional principle that EVERYONE deserves a defense.

When talking about public defenders and court-appointed attorneys, people often fall back on that old truism, “You get what you pay for.” The logic goes, then, that if you hire the cheapest attorney you can because that’s the only one you can afford, that attorney has to be better than the “free” one. That may be the exact opposite of the truth. A low-cost attorney likely is trying to make money by hustling as many cases as possible, and with that high case load and all the time spent advertising and trying to drum up business, that attorney may not have much time at all to spend on your case. Your public defender doesn’t have to spend any time advertising, drumming up business, or trying to collect money, and spends all of his or her time working on cases. Most court appointed lawyers aren’t trying to make a living off those cases, and are doing it out of a deep desire to give back to the community, so they are motivated to help you as well.

As a public defender for six years, I met most of my fellow public defenders in the Northern Virginia area regularly and attended yearly meetings with all the public defenders from across the Commonwealth. For several years I was even a member of the faculty teaching trial skills to the new public defender attorneys. Universally, they are all attorneys who want nothing else but to help their clients. They’re all “real attorneys,” having gone to the same law schools as the attorneys with the flashy websites or television commercials.

There are differences between a hired lawyer and a public defender or court appointed attorney. Public defenders have to represent everyone who can’t afford an attorney in the whole courthouse, so they will have more clients than a hired attorney will. They won’t have much time for “hand holding,” or simply talking to you to try and calm you down about everything going on in your life surrounding your case. When you hire an attorney, part of the fee you pay is for exactly that kind of service – it has nothing to do with what will eventually happen in court, but you’ve paid that attorney for his or her time and can use it to talk about anything you want.

When you determine which attorney is right for you, “court-appointed v. paid” should not be a factor in your decision. Think about how comfortable you are going into court with that person standing between you and a prosecutor who wants to put you in jail, with a judge who doesn’t care. You get to have one person on your side in court, are you comfortable with this attorney being that person? Remember, if you have a public defender, you have one of the attorneys who handles the most cases in court of anybody around. If you have a court-appointed attorney, you may have been assigned to somebody you never could afford on your own. Don’t rush off and hire just anybody to replace your attorney with the misguided thought that “cheap is better’n free.” If there is an attorney you can afford, one who you are more comfortable with than your court appointed attorney and would rather have by your side, hire that person, but don’t throw away a good attorney just because the court gave you that attorney!

Which attorney you go to court with is a personal decision, and in the end it may be a financial one. Don’t confuse the two and think that the more you spend on an attorney automatically means better representation. Give the court-appointed lawyer or public defender a chance before you spend all your money on an attorney instead of on bond.

Jonathan Esten, (703) 257-4944, Facebook