July 31, 2014 Articles

The Young Lawyer's Guide to Indigent Defense

A few pointers for young attorneys on how to represent indigent defendants where there is no local public defender's office.

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.

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