What Are the Differences Between Public Defenders and Private Defense Attorneys?

Some differences between public defenders and private defense attorneys are that public defenders are attorneys that government entities hire to work full-time representing criminal defendants, while private criminal defense attorneys receive work directly from the defendants who hire them. Sometimes, the government entity contracts private defense attorneys to represent individual criminal defendants. Additionally, private criminal defense attorneys often practice in a number of areas of law, while public defenders work solely on criminal defense, explains attorney Frank R. Southers.

Another difference between public defenders and private defense attorneys is that public defenders usually have higher caseloads than private defense attorneys, according to the law offices of Russo and Russo. While this is true, public defenders also often have ongoing relationships with psychologists and other professionals needed to assist with a criminal defense that a private defense attorney may not have access to when forming a defense.

A public defender can only help a client with the immediate criminal matter in the assigned court. The attorney cannot help with ancillary matters that a private attorney can help with, like an administrative driver's license restoration hearing, notes Russo and Russo. In addition, when hiring a private attorney, the client can interview several attorneys and choose which attorney to hire. With a public defender or a court-appointed private attorney, the defendant must use the attorney assigned to represent him.

Additionally, most courts only appoint a public defender to an indigent client. That means a person must be low-income to receive a public defender. Private attorneys differ from public defenders in this respect because anyone, regardless of income, can hire a private attorney if the attorney and client agree on the cost and terms of the representation, explains attorney Elizabeth Gonzalez.