What is the difference between a private attorney and a public defender?

“…You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you by the state.” Under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, anyone accused of a crime is entitled to legal representation for that crime, and police must make sure you understand this and other rights by reading you a Miranda warning, or your “rights,” before questioning you after being taken into custody. What is the difference between the attorney you can afford and the one provided for you by the state?

The Attorney You Hire – Private Attorney

A private attorney is retained at the expense of the defendant. Because a private attorney works for you and not the court, you will likely have better accessibility to a private attorney with a greater opportunity to meet to discuss your case, ask questions, and work on a strategy for dealing with your charges – though, it will cost you. Private attorneys may charge a flat fee or an hourly rate. Though an attorney cannot guarantee an outcome, a private attorney will generally invest more time in exploring your options and considering your preference for how to proceed with the case.

The Attorney Provided for You – Public Defender

Indigent defendants, or individuals who are unable to afford an attorney, will be appointed a public defender by the court. Generally, to be deemed indigent, you must complete a form that shows you do not have the resources to pay for an attorney and the court will decide if you should be appointed an attorney at the court’s expense. 

A public defender is employed by the government and provided to indigent defendants at no or minimal cost. While the legal representation provided by a public defender should not be any less effective than that from a private attorney, public defenders generally carry a significant caseload so accessibility for asking questions or meeting to discuss your case can be a challenge. However, like a private attorney, a public defender is there to provide you with legal representation, to make sure you understand your charges, the possible outcomes for a guilty plea or conviction, and to defend you in the courtroom.