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Careers in Public Defense

Public defenders provide counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases on the local, state, and federal levels. Public defenders’ offices may be structured either as government or quasi-government entities, or as independent nonprofit organizations.  Some states have a statewide public defender system, and others are organized on a local basis. Federal public defenders represent indigent defendants in federal court. Some public defender offices, particularly in urban areas and other busy jurisdictions, also have specialized departments that focus on, for instance, juvenile, capital, or appellate litigation.

Law graduates are hired directly by public defenders’ offices, providing tremendous opportunities to gain immediate litigation experience.

The National Legal Aid & Defender Association is a member organization for public defenders.  You may learn more about the history of public defense and the right to counsel in the U.S. through NLADA's website. 

Career Resources - Learn more about public defender careers with the following resources:

  • Harvard Law School Careers in Indigent Defense Guide: This guide is designed to help students determine if a career as a public defender is suitable for them.  The Guide elaborates on differences between federal, state and local public defender programs, provides information on interviewing for public defender positions, and includes narratives of different individuals serving as a public defender.
  • New York University School of Law Public Defender Career Handbook:  This publication is ideal for students looking for public defender internships and post-graduate jobs.  The Handbook is divided into three main sections, (1) Frequently Asked Questions about public defender careers (2) a listing and brief descriptions of the major public defender offices that regularly hire post-graduate attorneys and (3) a listing of capital defense offices that hire entry-level attorney. The Handbook also includes an appendix with very specific examples of hypothetical interview questions and interviews with leaders at public defender agencies.
  • University of Virginia School of Law How to Get a Job in a Public Defender's Office: This guide, published by the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, is designed to help students decide if they would like a career as a public defender.  It was also created to assist committed students in successfully landing a job at a defender's office.  Among other features, this publication includes information on how to choose the right public defender's office for you, how to develop a public defender resume, and how to prepare for an interview for a public defender's office.

Category: Public Sector Career Paths

Tags: Criminal Law, Government Careers