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The Young Lawyer's Guide to Indigent Defense

By Cleveland M. Patterson III – July 31, 2014

Every year, thousands of students graduate from law school, ready to embark on their career in the legal profession. A fraction of these future attorneys will choose a path of public-interest law, fueled with the desire to help those who do not have the resources to help themselves. In 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled, in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, that state courts are required under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases to defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys. Three years later, the Supreme Court guaranteed the right to counsel to defendants in criminal cases; and in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), held that counsel would be appointed if a defendant were indigent. As result of these monumental Supreme Court decisions, defendants accused of committing crimes, no matter how big or small, will receive legal representation.

Young attorneys who wish to champion the cause of representing indigent criminal defendants often find employment with their local public defender’s office. These public defenders are salaried employees of the state and provide a great amount of indigent criminal defense in the country. Small cities often do not have a public defender’s office; therefore, the state must find other ways to retain counsel for those who cannot afford an attorney. Some courts enter into a contract with a law firm and allow associates from that firm to represent low-income defendants. There might also be a legal-aid or legal-services organization serving the community. In other places, attorneys are appointed on a case-by-case basis as legal counsel for those who cannot afford representation, or are assigned to represent indigent defendants on the court’s criminal docket. These attorneys act as independent contractors and are paid a fixed amount by the court. Although the court’s list of appointed attorneys may be long, it is very competitive among newly minted attorneys. Here are a few pointers for young attorneys on how to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases when they reside in a city where there is no public defender’s office.

Get to Know the Judges and Clerks in the Municipal Court
The criminal docket in the municipal court, which might also be known as city court, hears local-ordinance violations and misdemeanor criminal offenses. This is the perfect court for a young lawyer to cut his or her teeth as a criminal-defense attorney, by representing defendants charged with minor offenses. To be able to accept cases in this court, the attorney should, consistent with professional ethics, introduce himself or herself to the judge and his or her clerk. This might be beneficial in that the clerk has the authority to add attorneys to the appointed-counsel list. In addition, traditional wisdom suggests that developing an appropriate professional rapport with the judge might be advantageous in regard to giving an attorney the benefit of the doubt in a close case, keeping in mind the criminal burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, the judge will determine whether an attorney remains on the appointed-counsel list.

Observe Other Appointed Attorneys
A great way to become an effective indigent-defense attorney is to observe other indigent-defense attorneys in court. The attorneys who have served as defense counsel in that court have experience with the inner workings of the court as well as a professional working relationship with the court officers. The new lawyer should pay close attention to how an experienced attorney addresses the court, interacts with clients, and negotiates with the prosecutor. The newbie should also take notes and not hesitate to ask questions. An experienced attorney is the greatest asset in the early stages of a career.

Talk to the Prosecutor
Contrary to what is seen on television, defense counsel and prosecutors are not always personally contentious with each other. At the end of the day, both sides would like to see that justice is served. The prosecutor may offer advice on how better to serve a criminal client, and may also assist by offering the best plea bargain that would be advantageous to the client, while also serving the city’s or the state’s best interest. Talking to the prosecutor about the client will also sharpen negotiation skills. If defense counsel believes a guilty verdict might be difficult for the prosecution to procure, then by all means he or she should stick to the zealous-advocacy guns for the client. Otherwise, counsel should negotiate the best possible plea agreement for the client.

Know the Law
This goes without saying. An attorney cannot represent an indigent client to the best of his or her abilities without knowing the elements of the alleged crime and the potential defenses to that crime. Not knowing the law is irresponsible and not in the best interest of the client. Therefore, proper legal research and case preparation are necessary, even in a seemingly minor case: It is not minor to the client, and inadequate preparation could result in an ineffective-assistance claim by the now-former client, a possible date with the disciplinary committee of the state bar, and damage to the reputation that the new lawyer wants to build.

Being a criminal-defense attorney for indigent clients may not seem like the flashy image that is associated with being a lawyer. There will not be a six-figure salary, nor will the new lawyer likely become the next Johnny Cochran. However, there are several major perks to representing impoverished clients. First is the gain of invaluable trial experience in criminal court. Being in front of a judge and advocating for a live client, who has so much at stake, gives the feeling that the three years spent in law school were actually worthwhile. Putting the skills and knowledge gained in law school to practical use in court is one of the best feelings in the world. Second, by providing legal assistance to those who need it the most in our society, the lawyer is ensuring that their constitutional right to legal representation is protected and that they are protected from systemic injustices.

Starting a career as an attorney is very difficult. Most new lawyers are not aware of the alternatives to representing indigent defendants when there is no public defender’s office in their city. Having read this, new attorneys now have an alternate path to gain courtroom experience and to fulfill a critical public service.

Keywords: litigation, access to justice, young lawyer, indigent defense

Cleveland M. Patterson III is a graduate of the Southern University Law Center.

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