By Jedidiah McKeehan

In TV shows and movies involving lawyers, the main character may get involved in a case in which someone needs a lawyer and they are currently represented by a public defender. The main character may meet up with the public defender to discuss the case and the public defender is portrayed as a total loser and a terrible lawyer. One example of a movie that portrays public defenders this way is My Cousin Vinny.

Is that really the case though? If you are appointed a public defender, are you at a total disadvantage?

Let’s discuss what a public defender is briefly. When someone is charged with a crime, and they are potentially facing jail time if they are convicted of their charge, and they do not have the funds to hire an attorney, the court will appoint them an attorney.

You may or may not be surprised to know that, well over fifty percent of people charged with crimes cannot afford to hire their own attorney and so they are represented by a public defender. Public defenders are state employees who are paid a salary to represent criminal clients.

Occasionally, the public defender’s office will not be able to represent someone who needs an attorney. In those instances, the court will assign a private attorney from the community to represent the individual and that attorney will be paid by the state for their work on that individual’s case. It would be fair to classify those individuals as public defenders as well.

Are these public defenders bad attorneys though? Absolutely not. In fact, they are excellent attorneys and they are great at what they do because they are in the same courts, day in and day out, and are familiar with all aspects of the courts in which they practice.

When someone comes to me and asks whether they should hire me or just go with a public defender, my normal response is, “You will be in good hands with a public defender. What I can offer you if you hire me, that a public defender probably cannot, is more availability to you. Public defenders have lots and lots of clients, and usually do not have time to meet with you multiple times prior to your court date, or be able to speak with you on the phone when you call. Further, I will be able to spend more time preparing for, and reviewing your case, simply because I have more time to devote to your case.”

To me, those are the primary things that a private, hired attorney can offer that a public defender potentially cannot.

So, to answer the original question, are public defenders that bad? No, absolutely not.

Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.