This guide is meant to maximize your odds working as a public defender out of law school. It is not meant for people who want to have a fall back option because a lot of the advice here will make you less competitive for other career paths. But, if being a PD is your main goal it may be wise to 100% commit to the path because hiring can be pretty competitive. Some background about me: I graduated in 2013 from UC Hastings and worked as a public defender in Colorado for about 4 years. I interned at 3 different PD offices through law school and have had dozens of interviews with other places along the way.
What do Public Defender offices look for in new hire?
1. Commitment to serving the client base – basically you will have to represent all sorts of folks, the one thing they will have in common is that they are accused of crimes and either poor or in custody. Many of them will have severe mental illnesses. Almost all of them will come from much different socioeconomic background than you. Depending on the jurisdiction the client base could be folks who are ethnic minorities or immigrants. The PD Hiring folks will want someone who is internally driven to properly serve these folks. They don’t want someone who would be disrespectful, or abusive towards clients, or someone who just wants to get trial experience so they can open up a personal injury shop. There are not enough resources to really supervise PD’s so they have to know that you are inclined to do right by your clients without any pressure from above.
2. Competence from the Start – It is rare for a public defender office to have the resources to properly train someone before they are given a caseload, in fact, I’m not really sure it is a thing anywhere. Of course, you will be supervised and helped along the way, but in addition to knowing the principles of criminal procedure and constitutional law, you will be expected to know how to a) analyze a fact pattern for defenses and weaknesses b) fully advise a client c) be organized enough not to miss any court dates or deadlines d) litigate basic motions e) conduct a jury trial.
How do you go from being a worthless 0L to a 3L with a PD job lined up? Broadly speaking you need to a) gain the practical skills required for competent criminal defense and b) the empathic and communication skills required to serve the client base, and c) demonstrate that through your work experience and community engagement.
0L Choosing a Law School
The decision you make before you take a single class will matter. Where you go to law school matters, although the relative prestige of your LS won’t so much. The more prestigious the better, but that’s not all you should look for. The main factors are a) proximity to PD offices that regularly hire people b) quality [or existence of] criminal defense clinic c) cost d) loan repayment assistance programs.
Location of law school– location matters because if you want to intern/extern during the semester it would be impractical if there are no PD offices around. Not every jurisdiction has a public defender’s office, so don’t count on one necessarily existing near the law school (some place have a network of private attorneys accept indigent client appointments), although all major metro areas seem to have one. If you want to work as a public defender in California it would be pretty dumb to go to a school in Iowa, because you’ll have a harder time logistically getting to interviews in CA, and probably won’t be able to work but for summers, and also because a CA PD office may not think you actually want to live in CA or have adequate cultural cache or community ties to engage w/ CA much more diverse demographics. On the other hand, if you get into Yale and want to be a PD in CA, then you will probably be just fine.
Clinics and Fellowships – The best way to prove you can do something in the future is to show that you have done it in the past. Internships will be your main source of experience, but schools can provide excellent training when they partner with organizations in the form of clinics and fellowships. Clinics are usually one semester long and involve representing individuals under supervision of real attorneys. One step above clinics are longer work programs that are tracked to lead to real jobs. The year after I graduated from UC Hastings, they teamed up with some group called Lawyers for America. Essentially, the program is a fulltime job at some sort of public interest or government during your 3L year, and assuming you do ok your fellowship will continue after you graduate. So basically a super clinic + a job at the end of it. If they had this program before I graduated I would have definitely done my best to get into it (hiring was much more when I graduated in 2013 and any guaranteed job seemed like a god send). Other schools probably have similar programs but that’s something to research on a school by school basis.
Cost/LRAP factors obviously won’t matter as much job prospects, but money is important so take it into account. Public service loan forgiveness may not be around if you are a 0L although a repeal probably won’t be retroactive. Also keep in mind, you might love the idea of being a PD now, but it wears most people down. 10 years as a PD is no easy task. Basically, don’t put all your eggs in the PSLF basket.
0L Pre-Law Experience
Remember, commitment to serving the clients starts before you get to law school. The longer your record of community involvement, the more credible you will be when you claim to want to serve the community. To that end , it would be a good idea to volunteer somewhere that serves clientele to a public defender’s office.
Foreign Language Skills – if you speak Spanish, great, polish your skills. If you have the time and skills then learning a foreign language (preferably one that matches the native language of a significant number of a PD clients) will set you apart like nothing else. Many jurisdictions have a dire need for more Spanish speakers. Even if you aren’t at the level to advise clients in Spanish, just knowing a little bit is valuable for client confidence, and also random little tasks that wouldn’t warrant getting a court certified interpreter. Other secondary languages can be useful too, depending on the client base.
You may not have a whole lot to do in 1L other than not doing terribly in law school. Good grades are never bad, and good grades in con law, crim pro, and crim law can be useful fodder interviews, so to the extent that you can don’t fuck up those classes. Many schools won’t let you work or intern in 0L so there isn’t a whole lot of practical experience to gain. However, there are still useful things to do with your time other than studying. You may be able to volunteer at some quasi legal service non-profit, other than volunteering as a victim’s advocate or a district attorney intern, it shouldn’t matter too much what you do as long as you serve people similar to clientele of a PD office. Everything you do in 1L should be geared towards maximizing your chances to get a 1L summer internship at a desirable jurisdiction (More on what a desirable jurisdiction means later). If you still want to try Big Law before working as a PD, it is imperative that you do 1L summer at a PD office because your 2L summer may have to be at a firm, and years down the line you want to be able to credibly demonstrate that you actually want to be a PD (if you still do anyway).
1L Summer Internship
Everyone knows 1L summer interns provide nothing of value (except researching sometimes), so don’t worry too much about actually knowing anything. But if your resume lacks any Public-Interesty stuff, you might not get a lot of second looks. The main things to have ready are 1) a cover letter that demonstrates your interest in PD work long term, and why that particular office would be a good fit 2) resume which highlights some public interest things you’ve done and any halfway relevant work experience 3) knowledge of when the PD offices you are looking at start accepting applications. Given that not a lot can set apart 1L’s from each other, the best thing you can probably do is make sure you get your applications out as soon as practicable. The break between semester 1 and 2 of 1L might be that time. Look up each office individually online; if you can’t get an answer call and speak to the office manager (the lawyers probably won’t have time for you). Don’t wait for your grades to come out if you can submit your applications earlier.
The one thing to keep in mind at all your internships is that legal writing and research aren’t going to make anyone think you have what it takes to be a PD, you also need practical experience with clients, and preferably in-court litigation experience. Some states allow students to practice law under supervision of an attorney if they have met some requirement. In California for example, I was able to practice under the student practice act as a 1L summer intern (but you need to concurrently take or have taken evidence law). Because I had some in court experience that set me apart from a lot of other folks, and so I had an easier time in 2L.
Anyway, in my humble opinion these are the main things to look at when deciding which office to intern at during 1L summer.
1) Practical Experience – what sort of responsibilities will you get? Writing motions is fine but client engagement is good too, and in court advocacy the most useful experience of all. If you can do even one hearing, whether a motion to suppress or arguing bond conditions, you will set yourself apart from everyone else that only read police reports and did a few research projects.
2) Hiring Practices – If the office doesn’t hire new attorneys then you won’t get much long term benefit from interning there unless you get some decent litigation experience to make up for it. You may be able to get some references but what is really important is to do a decent enough job that the people who are in charge of hiring new attorneys will see you more positively because you did a good job at their office as a 1L. If they won’t hire new attorneys then it’s just a wasted opportunity to have made a good impression on an organization that can actually hire you.
3) Size of the office- typically the bigger the offices hire more new attorneys so more of #2 but they are also more likely to have some sort of organized intern program which will help you get good experience that you can handle, and maybe some training to go with it.
2L is the time when you can really set yourself apart. During 2L you’ll have to opportunity to do journals, clinics, work during the year, in addition to classes. But, the same guiding principles still apply. You need to work to get a) litgation competence/experience b) empathic understanding of the client base c) demonstrate a+b through volunteering, experience, and a good cover letter.
Classes - Which classes you take are not going to be a big deal except that you need to take whatever prerequisites exist for the criminal defense clinic so that you can enroll in the clinic before 3L (if at all possible). If you can be on a clinic in your 2L Spring semester then you will have a huge step up in terms of competence compared to the people who only did a 1L PD internship. This is even more important if you want to keep open your big law options. If you want to do Big Law then you need to do big law summer during your 2L summer. If you end up not wanting to go that route then you will still be a competitive PD candidate since you would have had the equivalent of 2 summer PD internships. I would strongly recommend taking trial advocacy, criminal procedure, evidence (and any advanced evidence class) and some sort of science heavy evidence seminar.
Extracurricular/Clinic/Volunteering – I won’t spend too much time on this but in my opinion Trial Advocacy Team >> Moot Court team > criminal law journal. The trial advocacy team will hone trial skills like nothing else other than actually conducting trials. If you can get on the trial team, hiring authorities will expect you to be a competent enough trial attorney from day one. That is huge. Moot court hones legal analysis and speaking skills which are pretty big as well, but it’s not as evidence heavy or presentation heavy so it’s not quite as useful. I’ve never heard of any PD’s caring about journal, though I know a bunch who did journal. I’m skeptical of the cost/benefit analysis for PD gunning but I can see how work on a criminal law or race and poverty journal could provide some benefit, even if it is just interview fodder.
Ok so if you are 100% PD focused then obviously you need to do a 2L summer internship. Obviously, the same general principles apply, but there are two huge considerations to take into account: 1) will you have the opportunity to second chair a misdemeanor trial? If it is allowed, how likely is it that? 2) Does the office hire their 2L’s or at least favor their 2L’s in attorney hiring?
Basically, there is nothing that can better demonstrate that you are able to conduct a trial on day one than actually having done a trial already, so if you think you’ll be able to do that, then jump on the opportunity. Second, you want to be able to leverage the connections you make in your 2L summer towards your path to getting hired. If the 2L summer internship PD office doesn’t hire anyone for years after they graduate then you would have been better served by going to another office. There are some public defender offices that regularly hire their 2L interns, seek those out.
More of the same, but if you weren’t able to fit in the criminal defense clinic then definitely do that 3L Fall if at all possible. When you are doing your interviews for permanent placement in 3L fall or later, you can either say that you are already in it, or speak about what you have learned and accomplished. Telling an interviewer about experience you’ll get after you meet with them comes across lame IMO as it could just be an empty promise. Otherwise, just research as many PD offices together to make sure you apply to all realistic jobs before any deadlines are up.
Ideally you want the resume that you will submit [to as many PD offices as practical]:
0L Volunteer at public interest org serving client base + know Spanish fluently
1L Evidence and Crim Pro w/ decent grades
1L Summer PD internship w/ some basic in court representation if possible
2L Trial Team or Moot Court + Volunteer at public interest org serving client base
2L Spring Criminal Practice Clinic + Volunteer at public interest org serving client base
2L Summer Internship at a PD office w/ at least one trial conducted
3L Volunteer at public interest org serving client base + crim law classes + some crim law externship (not DA!) in addition to clinic if possible
Of course none of this will guarantee a job, but it will provide you with the best training for being a PD that you could realistically obtain in law school, and it will allow you to market yourself in a way that sets you apart. I would be happy to answer questions, or just talk about PD stuff. Just hit me up through a private message.
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