How to Become a Public Defender (Justice’s Unsung Hero!)

how to become a public defender

If you’ve ever felt a calling to fight for justice and represent those who can’t afford private counsel, or wondered what it takes to become a public defender, you’re in the right place.

In this guide, we’ll explore the EXACT steps you need to take to launch your career as a public defender. We’ll talk about:

  • The skills you need.
  • The education that can help you get there.
  • How to land a job as a public defender.

So, whether you’re a law student or a practicing attorney looking to make a difference, stay tuned.

We’re about to unravel the blueprint to become a public defender.

Let’s get started!

Contents show

Steps to Become a Public Defender


Step 1: Understand the Role of a Public Defender

Before embarking on the path to becoming a public defender, it’s crucial to understand the role and responsibilities of this position.

A public defender is a licensed attorney who is appointed to represent individuals who cannot afford to hire a private attorney.

They handle a wide array of criminal cases, ranging from minor offenses like petty theft to serious felonies like murder.

They also guide their clients through the legal process, advocating on their behalf in court and providing advice on their legal rights and options.

Being a public defender can be challenging and stressful due to the heavy workload and the complex and sometimes emotionally charged nature of the cases.

However, it can also be rewarding as they play a crucial role in safeguarding the legal rights of the underprivileged and ensuring equal justice under the law.

To be successful in this role, you need to have a strong commitment to public service, excellent communication and analytical skills, a good understanding of criminal law, and the ability to handle stress and pressure.

It’s important to research this role extensively, speak with professionals in the field, and possibly even intern at a public defender’s office to ensure this is the right career path for you.


Step 2: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

To become a public defender, you must first obtain a Bachelor’s Degree.

The choice of your undergraduate major is flexible, but many future lawyers choose to study subjects like political science, English, philosophy, or history as they provide a solid foundation for the skills required in law school.

However, some may choose to study in fields like business or economics.

During your undergraduate studies, it is essential to maintain a high GPA to make you a strong candidate for law school admissions.

Additionally, consider taking courses that require lots of reading, writing, and critical thinking – skills that are necessary for law.

You should also begin to familiarize yourself with the legal system and public defense work.

This can be done through internships, job shadowing, or volunteering at a local law firm or public defender’s office.

This not only gives you practical experience but also helps you build connections in the legal community.

Finally, you must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) as it is a mandatory requirement for admission into law school.

High scores on this exam can make you an attractive candidate to competitive law schools.


Step 3: Attend Law School

After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next crucial step in becoming a public defender is to attend law school.

It is during this time that you will receive an in-depth knowledge of the legal system and various laws.

Law school generally takes three years to complete, and upon graduation, you will receive a Juris Doctor (JD) degree.

In law school, you will learn about various areas of law such as contract law, constitutional law, criminal law, and civil procedure.

You will also participate in simulated court proceedings to gain practical skills and experience.

Besides, you will have the opportunity to specialize in the field of criminal law, which is vital for a public defender.

During your time in law school, it is beneficial to seek internships or part-time work in legal aid offices, public defender’s offices, or other organizations that provide legal services to indigent clients.

This will provide you with valuable hands-on experience and give you a feel for the day-to-day responsibilities of a public defender.

It’s also important to hone your research, writing, and advocacy skills as these are critical for a public defender.

Participating in moot court competitions, law review, and other extracurricular activities can help develop these skills.

Lastly, developing a robust understanding of ethics in law practice while in law school is crucial, as public defenders often face complex ethical dilemmas in their work.


Step 4: Pass the Bar Examination

After you’ve received your law degree, the next vital step in pursuing a career as a public defender is to pass the bar examination.

The bar exam is a state-administered test that every practicing lawyer must pass to be licensed to practice law in that state.

Each state bar association sets the exam and regulates the licensing of attorneys in their jurisdiction.

The exam is typically a two-day comprehensive test of your understanding of the basic principles of law and your ability to communicate these ideas effectively.

The first day usually consists of a Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), which is a multiple-choice test.

The second day typically includes essay questions based on the laws of the state where you’re taking the exam.

The bar examination is known for being highly rigorous and demanding, requiring substantial preparation.

Most law school graduates spend several months studying intensively for the exam.

It’s recommended to take a bar review course to help prepare you for the exam and to practice answering questions in the format that will be on the test.

Once you pass the bar examination, you will officially be a licensed attorney and can begin your career as a public defender.

However, keep in mind that some public defender offices may require additional qualifications or experience, such as a demonstrated interest in serving the underprivileged or prior experience in a courtroom.


Step 5: Gain Legal Experience

As a public defender, gaining practical legal experience is crucial for developing the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively represent your clients.

This experience can be acquired through internships, clerkships, or pro bono work.

Internships provide a valuable opportunity to gain exposure to the legal system and hone your skills.

Many law schools offer internships in public defender offices, allowing students to work under the supervision of experienced attorneys.

This hands-on experience not only enhances your understanding of the law but also gives you a taste of what it’s like to work as a public defender.

Clerkships, typically undertaken after graduation, can provide a fantastic insight into the workings of the court system.

As a clerk, you’ll have the chance to research legal issues, draft opinions, and observe courtroom proceedings.

Pro bono work is another great way to gain experience and help the community.

Many organizations need legal help but cannot afford it.

By offering your services for free, you’re not only gaining experience but also making a difference in people’s lives.

Gaining legal experience also helps you build a network within the legal community, which can be valuable when you’re ready to start your career as a public defender.

You’ll have the chance to meet and learn from experienced attorneys and judges, who can provide guidance and mentorship.

Finally, this step is about more than just building your resume.

It’s about getting a sense of whether this career is the right fit for you.

Public defending can be challenging and stressful, but also immensely rewarding.

The experience you gain during this stage can help you decide if this is the path you want to follow.


Step 6: Build a Strong Foundation in Criminal Law

As an aspiring public defender, it is essential that you build a strong foundation in criminal law.

This is the area of law you will practice extensively as a public defender.

You should aim to gain a deep understanding of the principles of criminal law, criminal procedure, and evidence.

Consider taking elective law courses that focus on these areas.

Participating in clinical programs focused on criminal defense during law school can provide practical experience and insight into the work of a public defender.

Joining a moot court or trial advocacy team can also help you build litigation skills that will be useful in your career.

Moreover, internships or clerkships at public defender’s offices can provide valuable exposure to the role.

Such hands-on experiences not only provide you with practical knowledge but also help you establish connections with professionals in the field.

Besides the knowledge you acquire in law school, keep yourself updated with new developments in criminal law by reading relevant legal journals, attending seminars, and participating in legal debates and discussions.

Remember, a robust knowledge of criminal law and exposure to real-world legal scenarios will be instrumental in your success as a public defender.

Understanding the nuances of criminal law can make the difference between winning and losing a case.


Step 7: Apply for Public Defender Positions

Once you have completed the necessary education, have passed the bar exam, and gained some experience, it’s time to apply for public defender positions.

Public defender offices can be found in every state and federal district, so you can search for job openings in your preferred area.

Public defender jobs may be advertised on government job websites, local or state bar associations, or legal career job boards.

Tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight any experience you have in criminal defense work, internships, clinic experiences, and relevant coursework.

Your experiences should show your commitment to serving marginalized communities and your ability to represent clients effectively in court.

Networking can be crucial to landing a public defender job.

Attend legal networking events, bar association meetings, and any other legal gatherings where public defenders might be present.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals in the field to ask for informational interviews.

These connections can often alert you to job opportunities that may not be publicly advertised.

Once you have applied, be prepared for a rigorous interview process.

You may be asked to participate in several rounds of interviews, perform a mock trial or a legal writing sample, and provide references.

Be ready to discuss your legal philosophy, your commitment to public defense, and specific cases you have worked on.

Remember, landing a public defender job can be competitive, and you may face rejections.

Don’t let this discourage you.

Each application and interview is a chance to improve your skills and get one step closer to your goal.

Keep applying and honing your skills until you secure a position.


Step 8: Complete Training and Certification Requirements

As a public defender, you are required to complete the necessary training and certifications, as this role involves representing individuals who cannot afford private attorneys in court.

This requires a comprehensive understanding of the law and exceptional communication skills.

The first step of this process is passing the bar exam in your jurisdiction.

This exam is usually taken after graduating from law school and is a crucial requirement for becoming a practicing attorney.

Following this, you are required to complete a period of on-the-job training.

This usually takes the form of an apprenticeship or clerkship with a more experienced attorney or judge.

During this time, you will have the opportunity to gain first-hand experience with courtroom procedures, case preparation, and client interaction.

Further, as a public defender, you may wish to pursue certification in criminal law from a recognized legal certification board such as the National Board of Trial Advocacy.

This certification can help to demonstrate your competency and expertise in criminal law and may be beneficial in advancing your career.

Additionally, in order to maintain your license to practice law, you are required to complete continuing legal education (CLE) courses throughout your career.

These courses ensure that you stay up-to-date with changes in the law and legal practice.

Remember, the path to becoming a public defender can be challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding if you are passionate about social justice and advocating for those who may not have the means to represent themselves.


Step 9: Develop Key Skills

As a Public Defender, there are several key skills that you need to possess and continually develop to excel in your role.

Firstly, you should have excellent research and investigative skills.

A significant part of your job will involve researching legal precedents and case laws, gathering evidence, and preparing legal documents.

You’ll need to become familiar with legal research tools such as LexisNexis and Westlaw.

Secondly, strong communication skills are essential.

You will be required to explain complex legal terms and situations to your clients in a manner they can understand.

You will also need to effectively argue cases before a judge and jury, present evidence, and cross-examine witnesses.

Thirdly, it’s important to have good interpersonal skills.

Public defenders work with a wide range of clients, often under stressful situations.

Being empathetic, understanding, and able to build a rapport with your clients can make a significant difference in your effectiveness as a defender.

Next, you should develop your negotiation skills.

A significant part of your work will involve negotiating plea agreements with the prosecution.

Good negotiation skills can help ensure that your clients receive the best possible outcome.

Finally, public defenders must be able to handle stress and pressure.

This job can be incredibly demanding, with high caseloads and the responsibility of representing clients who may be facing severe penalties.

It’s important to have coping mechanisms in place to deal with this pressure and to maintain your mental and physical health.

Remember, being a successful public defender is not only about having the right educational background and legal knowledge, but also about continually developing these essential skills.


Step 10: Join Professional Organizations for Public Defenders

Joining professional organizations and associations for public defenders is an important step to progress in your career.

These organizations can provide opportunities for networking, continuing education, training, and staying updated on the latest developments in the field of criminal defense law.

Examples of such organizations include the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA).

These organizations often host conferences and events that allow you to connect with other professionals in your field and learn from their experiences.

They also often offer resources and tools to help with career development and advocacy efforts.

In addition to national organizations, you may also find local or state associations that can provide similar benefits.

Joining such groups can provide you with a supportive community of peers who understand the unique challenges and rewards of working as a public defender.

Remember, being a part of these organizations may also increase your credibility and visibility within the profession, as it shows your commitment to staying informed and engaged in your field.

This can lead to new opportunities for career growth and advancement.


Step 11: Commit to Ongoing Education and Professional Development

As a public defender, the learning process does not end after you complete your formal education and pass the bar exam.

The law is a constantly evolving field, and to stay abreast of these changes, it is crucial to commit to ongoing education and professional development.

Many states require attorneys, including public defenders, to complete a certain number of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits every year or every few years.

These can be obtained through seminars, online courses, or workshops that cover new legislation, updates to legal processes, or emerging areas of the law.

Aside from these mandatory CLE credits, it’s also beneficial to attend conferences, join professional associations, and network with other legal professionals.

These activities not only give you opportunities to learn about the latest trends and developments in the field of law, but also help you build relationships that could be beneficial to your career.

Furthermore, consider seeking mentorship from more experienced public defenders or volunteering to mentor newer ones.

This exchange of knowledge and experiences can greatly enhance your skills and understanding of the role.

Lastly, keep up with recent legal decisions, changes in law, and new legal publications.

Following legal blogs, subscribing to legal newsletters, and reading law-related literature can help you stay informed and provide better representation for your clients.

Remember, a commitment to lifelong learning is key to a successful career as a public defender.


Step 12: Uphold Ethical Standards and Practice with Empathy

As a Public Defender, it is crucial that you uphold the highest ethical standards in your profession.

This includes maintaining client confidentiality, demonstrating professional integrity, and avoiding conflicts of interest.

You should always be transparent in your dealings and ensure that your actions are in the best interest of your clients.

In addition to this, it’s important to practice with empathy.

You will be working with clients who may be under a great deal of stress and facing serious consequences.

These clients often come from various backgrounds and circumstances.

Understanding and empathizing with your clients’ situations will not only enable you to represent them more effectively, but it also helps build trust and rapport.

Remember, as a public defender, you’re not just arguing cases, but you’re also advocating for individuals who may not have anyone else to stand up for their rights.

This role requires a deep commitment to social justice, a keen sense of fairness, and the ability to empathize with those in unfortunate circumstances.

Frequent self-reflection and ongoing professional development can help you maintain the ethical standards and empathetic approach necessary for this role.

Don’t hesitate to seek out mentorship and opportunities for learning to continue growing in your role as a public defender.



Public Defender Roles and Responsibilities

Public Defenders represent clients in legal proceedings who cannot afford to hire their own attorney.

They work with a variety of cases, including criminal, civil, and family law matters.

They have the following roles and responsibilities:


Client Representation

  • Represent clients in court and at other legal proceedings.
  • Defend the rights of clients at all stages of the criminal justice process.
  • Act as an advocate for the client during trials and hearings.


Legal Counseling

  • Provide legal advice to clients about their rights and responsibilities.
  • Help clients understand the legal process and what to expect.
  • Assist clients with decision-making by explaining potential legal consequences.


Case Investigation

  • Investigate facts and evidence related to cases.
  • Interview clients, witnesses, and other relevant parties to gather information.
  • Work with private investigators and other professionals as needed.


Plea Bargaining

  • Negotiate with prosecutors to reduce charges or sentences.
  • Advise clients on the benefits and risks of accepting a plea deal.


Legal Research and Preparation

  • Conduct legal research to support defense strategies.
  • Prepare legal documents such as motions, briefs, and appeals.
  • Develop defense strategies based on the law, evidence, and the specific circumstances of each case.


Education and Training

  • Stay updated on new laws, regulations, and legal precedents.
  • Participate in continuing legal education programs and professional development activities.


Team Collaboration

  • Work with a team of public defenders, paralegals, and administrative staff.
  • Collaborate with social workers, mental health professionals, and other experts to ensure comprehensive representation.



  • Communicate effectively with clients, court personnel, and other legal professionals.
  • Present oral arguments in court clearly and persuasively.



  • Adhere to the ethical standards of the legal profession.
  • Maintain client confidentiality and protect client rights.


Courtroom Conduct

  • Present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and make closing arguments in court.
  • Conduct jury selection and participate in sentencing hearings.


Community Engagement

  • Engage with the community to understand their needs and concerns.
  • Advocate for public policy changes to improve the justice system.


What Does a Public Defender Do?

Public Defenders are legal professionals who represent individuals who cannot afford to hire a private attorney.

They are typically employed by the government, either at the state or federal level.

Their primary responsibility is to provide legal defense services to their clients, who are usually charged with crimes.

This involves conducting interviews with their clients to understand their situation, researching the laws related to their cases, and developing a legal strategy to defend their clients in court.

Public defenders represent their clients in various legal proceedings, which can include arraignments, hearings, trials, and appeals.

They are responsible for arguing on behalf of their clients, presenting evidence, cross-examining witnesses, and negotiating plea deals.

Public defenders also counsel their clients on their rights and advise them on the best course of action based on their specific circumstances.

They may also be responsible for filing legal motions and documents, such as motions to dismiss charges or to reduce bail.

Their ultimate goal is to ensure that their clients receive a fair trial and that their constitutional rights are upheld, regardless of their financial circumstances.


Essential Public Defender Skills

  • Legal Knowledge: A deep understanding of the law and legal procedures is essential for a Public Defender. They must stay up-to-date with changes in legislation, court decisions, and legal precedents that may impact their clients’ cases.
  • Communication: Excellent verbal and written communication skills are vital. Public Defenders must be able to articulate their clients’ positions clearly to judges, juries, and opposing counsel, and they must also be adept at negotiating plea agreements.
  • Research: Effective research skills are crucial in uncovering evidence, interpreting laws, and preparing legal arguments. Familiarity with legal research databases and the ability to analyze large amounts of information are essential.
  • Problem-solving: Public Defenders must develop strategic and creative solutions for their clients’ legal problems. They need to be able to think on their feet, especially when representing clients in court.
  • Client Counseling: Being a Public Defender involves advising clients about their legal rights, potential outcomes, and the best course of action. This requires empathy, patience, and the ability to build trust with clients, often under challenging circumstances.
  • Advocacy: Effective advocacy is key to representing clients in court. Public Defenders must be persuasive, confident, and able to argue convincingly in favor of their clients’ interests.
  • Interviewing: Gathering information from clients, witnesses, and other relevant individuals is a critical part of case preparation. Excellent interviewing skills are necessary to obtain accurate and useful information.
  • Ethics: Public Defenders must adhere strictly to the professional and ethical rules that govern the practice of law. This includes maintaining client confidentiality, avoiding conflicts of interest, and promoting justice.
  • Time Management: Public Defenders often have heavy caseloads and tight deadlines. The ability to prioritize tasks, manage time effectively, and work under pressure is essential.
  • Resilience: Working as a Public Defender can be stressful and emotionally demanding. Resilience and the ability to cope with setbacks are crucial for sustaining a career in this field.


Public Defender Career Path Progression

The Foundation: Junior Public Defender

Your journey typically begins as a Junior Public Defender.

At this stage, you are learning the ropes of representing clients who cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own.

Your responsibilities may include conducting client interviews, managing legal documentation, and assisting with court appearances under the supervision of senior lawyers.

Here are some tips for success in this role:

  1. Legal Knowledge: Stay up-to-date with the latest legal statutes, court rulings, and practice areas.
  2. Seek Mentorship: Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from senior lawyers and judges.
  3. Client Interaction: Develop effective communication skills to deal with clients from various backgrounds and situations.


The Ascent: Public Defender

As you gain experience and confidence, you transition into the role of a Public Defender.

You take full responsibility for representing your clients in court, conducting research for your cases, and presenting arguments before the judge.

Here’s how to thrive in this stage:

  1. Advocacy Skills: Polish your advocacy skills to represent your clients effectively in court.
  2. Legal Research: Improve your legal research skills to build strong cases and provide the best defense for your clients.
  3. Crisis Management: Develop skills to manage crises and high-pressure situations effectively.


Reaching New Heights: Senior Public Defender

The next step in your career path is the Senior Public Defender role.

You are recognized for your expertise and leadership within the department.

You may take on mentoring roles, make critical case strategy decisions, and guide younger attorneys.

To excel as a Senior Public Defender:

  1. Mentorship: Share your knowledge and help junior public defenders grow.
  2. Strategic Thinking: Think beyond individual cases and consider broader strategies for the public defense department.
  3. Leadership: Lead by example and inspire others with your work ethic and advocacy skills.


Beyond the Horizon: Lead Roles and Beyond

As your career progresses, you may choose to specialize in a particular area, such as becoming a Chief Public Defender, or transitioning into a managerial role within the public defense department.

Each of these roles involves greater responsibilities, leadership, and strategic decision-making.

Here’s what to focus on:

  1. Legal Leadership: Drive legal initiatives and shape the direction of your public defense department.
  2. Management Skills: If you transition into management, develop strong leadership and communication skills to guide your team effectively.
  3. Policymaking: Advocate for policy changes that enhance the rights of your clients and improve the public defense system.


Pinnacle of Success: Director of Public Defense

You may reach roles like Director of Public Defense at the highest levels of the public defense career ladder.

Here, you’ll be responsible for shaping the overall strategy of the public defense department, making critical decisions, and managing larger teams.


Public Defender Salary

Entry-Level Public Defender

  • Median Salary: $45,000 – $60,000 per year
  • Entry-level public defenders typically have 0-2 years of experience. They usually hold a Juris Doctor degree and have passed their state’s bar examination.


Mid-Level Public Defender

  • Median Salary: $60,000 – $80,000 per year
  • Mid-level public defenders have around 3-5 years of experience. They often take on more complex cases and are expected to handle a larger caseload.


Senior Public Defender

  • Median Salary: $80,000 – $100,000 per year
  • Senior public defenders possess 5+ years of experience. They are responsible for handling high-profile or particularly difficult cases, and may also mentor less experienced public defenders.


Chief Public Defender

  • Median Salary: $100,000 – $130,000 per year
  • This role requires significant experience and often involves managing a team of public defenders, setting department strategy, and making critical decisions on challenging cases.


State Public Defender / Public Defender Director

  • Median Salary: $120,000 – $160,000+ per year
  • These high-level positions require extensive legal experience, deep understanding of criminal law, and strong leadership skills. They are responsible for overseeing public defense services at a state level or in large metropolitan areas.


Public Defender Work Environment

Public Defenders typically work in government offices, courthouses, and sometimes in prisons or jails where they meet with their clients.

The work they do is often fast-paced and stressful, given the nature of the criminal justice system and the high stakes for their clients.

Public Defenders typically work full-time with regular office hours, but they can also expect to work overtime, including nights and weekends, due to the need to prepare for court proceedings or to meet with clients outside of normal hours.

After gaining substantial experience and expertise, a Public Defender may choose to open their own private law practice or transition into a role in academia or policy work.

However, many Public Defenders remain in the role for a significant portion of their careers, driven by a commitment to social justice and the rights of the accused.


FAQs About Becoming a Public Defender

What is needed to become a public defender?

To become a public defender, you need to first earn a bachelor’s degree followed by a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association.

This education typically takes seven years in total.

Additionally, you must pass the bar exam in the state you wish to practice.

As this is a specialized legal field, taking courses or gaining experience in criminal law, constitutional law and trial advocacy could be particularly beneficial.

Public defenders also need excellent negotiation, research, and public speaking skills.


How long does it take to become a public defender?

Becoming a public defender typically requires seven years of full-time study, which includes four years for a bachelor’s degree and three years for a law degree.

After graduation, you will have to pass the bar exam in your respective state which can take a few months to prepare for.

Some aspiring public defenders also choose to gain experience through internships or clerkships, which could add to this timeline.


Can I become a public defender if I haven’t specialized in criminal law?

Yes, it is possible to become a public defender without specializing in criminal law during your legal studies.

However, having a background or specialization in criminal law could provide a significant advantage, as it will give you a deeper understanding of the issues and procedures involved in defending clients in criminal cases.

Regardless of your specialization, you will need to pass the bar exam in your respective state to practice law.


Is being a public defender a stressful job?

Being a public defender can be stressful, as the role often involves managing a high caseload, working long hours, dealing with difficult clients, and facing intense courtroom situations.

However, many public defenders find the job fulfilling because they are providing a crucial service to their community and ensuring the legal rights of all individuals are upheld.


What are the prospects for public defenders in the next decade?

The demand for public defenders is expected to follow the general trend for lawyers, with a steady growth rate projected over the next decade.

However, job availability can be influenced by government funding, as public defenders are typically employed by the state.

The need for quality public defenders remains high, making it a viable and important career choice for those interested in criminal law.



There you have it.

Initiating the journey to become a public defender is no small task, but it’s unquestionably gratifying.

Equipped with the right knowledge, credentials, and persistence, you’re on the brink of making a significant impact in the world of criminal justice.

Keep in mind, the route may be demanding, but the possibilities are limitless. Your legal expertise could be crucial in defending those who cannot afford private representation, ensuring a fair and just legal system for all.

So, take that first stride. Immerse yourself in studying law. Connect with experienced professionals. And above all, never stop advocating.

Because the world is waiting for your crucial contribution to justice.

And if you’re seeking personalized guidance on beginning or progressing your career in public defense, explore our AI Career Path Advisor.

This complimentary tool is designed to offer tailored advice and resources to help you effectively navigate your career path.

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