Lawyer vs. Public Defender: Understanding the Key Differences

When legal trouble arises, having representation can make all the difference. While lawyers and public defenders both serve the vital role of defending clients in the judicial system, they differ in important ways that impact who they serve and how. This article will clarify the distinction between private attorneys and public defenders, the qualifications required for each, and factors to consider when choosing representation.

The Need for Legal Representation

The United States judicial system is complex, with intricacies in rules and procedures that are difficult for non-lawyers to navigate. Having an advocate with training in the law is essential for mounting an effective defense or prosecuting a case. Legal representation upholds a fundamental right to due process and a fair trial for all citizens, regardless of economic status, background, or charges faced.

While most are familiar with the basic role of lawyers, public defenders are less understood. Common myths portray them as less competent than private attorneys. The reality is that public defenders play a vital role in the legal system and perform their duties with dedication despite heavy caseloads and limited resources.

This article aims to clarify misconceptions about lawyers and public defenders while outlining their distinct qualifications, duties, and considerations regarding legal representation. Understanding these key differences allows for better-informed choices when selecting counsel.

Defining Lawyers and Public Defenders

Lawyers are licensed professionals who represent and advise clients on a wide range of legal matters. This includes being retained to represent plaintiffs and defendants in civil litigation and criminal proceedings. Lawyers complete rigorous training and must pass the bar exam to be licensed to practice in their state. They are bound by rules of professional conduct and ethical guidelines.

Public defenders are a specialized category of lawyer. Rather than being in private practice, they are employed by the government as public servants. Public defender offices provide legal representation to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire private counsel. Their sole purpose is providing legal defense services for those qualifying as indigent.

Education and Training Requirements

The baseline qualifications are identical – both public defenders and private attorneys must earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree and pass the bar exam. This lengthy process involves:

  • Earning a bachelor’s degree (typically 4 years)
  • Completing 3 years of law school and earning a J.D.
  • Passing the comprehensive bar exam to be licensed and authorized to practice law

Public defenders and private attorneys also undergo rigorous on-the-job training and supervision in the early stages of their career. Continuing legal education is required to stay up-to-date on developments in the law throughout their professional lives.

Differences emerge in specialized training. Private attorneys may focus their practice in a specific field of law and gain targeted expertise through advanced certifications. On the other hand, public defenders need broad knowledge of criminal law and trial procedures to handle a wide range of cases.

Scope of Work and Services Provided

One of the biggest differences between private attorneys and public defenders is the types of cases they handle:

Private lawyers offer counsel across civil and criminal matters spanning nearly all legal fields:

  • Family law – divorce, child custody, adoption
  • Corporate/business law – contracts, mergers and acquisitions
  • Real estate law – property title transfers, leasing
  • Personal injury and malpractice cases
  • Criminal defense for clients who retain them

Public defenders exclusively represent criminal defendants who cannot afford a private lawyer. Their caseloads consist entirely of:

  • Misdemeanor charges
  • Felony charges
  • Defendants facing potential prison sentences or long-term incarceration

Unlike private firms, they do not pick and choose clients or cases. Public defenders are appointed by the court system to defendants qualifying as indigent based on financial eligibility screening.

Key Factors in Choosing Representation

For those requiring counsel in criminal proceedings, deciding between retaining a private lawyer or utilizing a public defender comes down to a few key considerations:


For those who qualify, public defender services are available at no upfront cost. Private criminal lawyers can be expensive to retain, with fees sometimes exceeding $100 per hour.

Personalized Attention

Private lawyers may be able to devote more time and attention to developing an individualized defense, with lower caseloads. Public defenders often juggle dozens if not hundreds of cases simultaneously.

Specialized Expertise

A private attorney can be specifically chosen based on their background and experience in similar cases. Public defenders are assigned through the courts rather than selected directly.

Constraints on Resources

While their devotion to their work is high, public defender offices operate on very limited budgets compared to private firms. They have fewer financial resources available for expert witnesses, investigations, and other case expenses.

Key Factors in Choosing Representation

Myths vs. Reality

Several pervasive myths portray public defenders as less qualified or committed than private lawyers. Reality proves otherwise:

Myth: Public defenders are not “real lawyers.”

Reality: They are real lawyers meeting the same education and licensing standards as private attorneys. Many leave lucrative positions at firms to serve as dedicated public servants.

Myth: Public defenders are less competent on average.

Reality: While caseloads are extremely high, public defenders gain valuable expertise from the sheer volume of cases they handle in a wide array of areas. Their competence should not be underestimated.

Myth: Public defenders don’t care about their clients.

Reality: Most are deeply committed to protecting their clients’ rights despite the challenges of high caseloads, limited resources, and low pay compared to private lawyers.

In truth, many public defenders provide exemplary counsel despite limitations, upholding every defendant’s right to skilled representation.

The Bigger Picture: Legal Representation and Justice

Beyond individual cases, the presence of public defender offices impacts the judicial system as a whole. Public defenders uphold the crucial Constitutional rights to legal counsel and due process by representing indigent clients through:

  • Ensuring mistakes by law enforcement are caught
  • Protecting against false or coerced confessions
  • Preventing wrongful convictions through vigorous defense
  • Providing alternatives to pretrial detention for defendants who can’t afford bail
  • Advising clients on plea deals and legal options

Overall, public defenders are vital defenders of justice, protecting society’s most vulnerable members regardless of the charges they face. As non-profits funded by taxpayers, they also help share the cost of upholding individual rights and the integrity of the legal system as a whole.

Reforms to improve training, reduce caseloads, and increase funding for public defenders continue to be debated and implemented in states across the country. Discussion around expanding access to quality legal counsel for defendants of all economic backgrounds is also ongoing.


This breakdown clarifies the roles of both private attorneys and public defenders in representing clients in legal matters, dispelling common myths about public defenders. While hiring private counsel allows choice and customization, public defenders provide skilled defense to clients who otherwise could not afford representation. Both play important interwoven roles in upholding justice, due process, and the rule of law. Understanding the key distinctions allows clients to make informed decisions when seeking legal representation best suited to their needs and circumstances.