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Chris July 28, 2016

I overhear it at the courthouse, I see it on Avvo and occasionally people ask it to me: “Should I hire a real lawyer?” Usually that person already has or is eligible for a lawyer, a public defender or court-appointed attorney, and is contemplating hiring and paying an attorney on his or her own. Public defenders are real lawyers. They are also paid lawyers. They are often experienced and good. Criminal defendants have a right to counsel under the state and federal constitutions. As you have probably heard in Miranda warnings on TV shows, individuals who cannot afford to hire attorneys on their own can have counsel appointed by the court. This became a constitutional right with the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision in 1962. In Connecticut, appointed counsel is provided by the public defender’s office. Most cases are handled by public defenders who are salaried state employees. In other cases, conflicts require special public defenders, now officially known as “Assigned Counsel” but still colloquially called SPD’s, to be appointed. The public defender’s office is essentially a law firm. It cannot represent clients that would cause conflicts of interest in the office, such as co-defendants or a defendant who is also a victim in another client’s case.

Assigned Counsel are not state employees but state contractors; they are attorneys who have their own practices and can represent outside clients and practice in other areas of the law. I have an assigned counsel contract and represent criminal defendants and parents and children in child protection cases for which there is also a right to appointed counsel. I have worked with and learned from many career public defenders over the years. Connecticut has the oldest and one of, if not, the best public defense system in the country. There are however many misconceptions and myths about public defenders and assigned attorneys. The first and worst is that they’re on the state’s side–that because they are paid by the state they are on the same side as the judge and prosecutor. That is not true at all. Regardless of who pays the fees, attorneys work for their clients. Public defenders work for their clients and are free from having to lock down fees and retainers. Another terrible misconception is that court-appointed attorneys are just not very good because good attorneys would be able to get their own, higher-paying clients. It is usually the opposite–they are well-experienced and familiar with their courts. I have attended many public defender training programs and can attest to their quality.

Choosing an attorney is one of the most important decisions a criminal defendant must make. The client must be comfortable with his or her attorney and trust him or her to effectively handle the case regardless of who is paying the fee. Whether a defendant should hire private counsel is a question that only the client can answer.