By Jedidiah McKeehan

In TV shows and movies, when they are arresting the bad guy (or occasionally, the wrongfully arrested good guy), the officer putting the handcuffs on will read the person their rights. As part of those rights they will say, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you.”

I am not sure we realize how often an appointed attorney is the one representing someone on a case. If I had to guess, 70% of all criminal defendants in Knox County are represented by an appointed attorney. In some of the neighboring rural counties, I bet that number can be as high as 90-95%.

How does this work exactly? The defendant appears before a judge and fills out an affidavit of indigency where they list their income and assets. Typically, if the defendant makes below the poverty line, then they qualify to have an attorney appointed to represent them.

But who pays these appointed attorneys? The first option for a criminal defendant is to be represented by the Public Defender’s Office. Public Defenders are salaried state employees paid by the state to represent people in criminal cases. However, if the Public Defender’s office cannot represent a defendant (one example would be that a defendant is accused of assaulting someone who the Public Defender’s office represented on a different criminal charge), then the Court will appoint a private attorney, who has agreed to accept appointed clients, to represent the defendant. This attorney will also get paid by the state of Tennessee as a contractor at the rate of $50.00 an hour.

That may sound like a lot of money, but it is about the lowest rate of compensation for appointed attorneys in the entire country. The most recent numbers I have been able to find come from 2013 which reflects Wisconsin compensating appointed attorneys at $40.00 an hour and Oregon compensating attorneys at $45.00 an hour on the low end, and the high end shows California, Nevada and Kentucky paying around $100.00 an hour, depending on the charge.

In Tennessee these rates not only apply to criminal cases, but they also apply on cases for attorneys appointed on matters involving juvenile cases and the Public Defender’s office is not involved. When a case is opened by the Department of Children’s Services against a parent where they believe a child is at risk, the attorneys appointed to represent the parents and the attorney appointed to represent the child’s best interest (called a guardian ad litem) are also compensated at $50.00 an hour.

This stands in stark contrast to what occurs if an attorney is actually hired and paid by someone. Typically, the lowest hourly rate an attorney will charge to represent someone is around $150.00 an hour. Appointed attorneys are working at $100.00 below that number.


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