Share Your Thoughts

Q Would it be better for my case if I hired a real attorney?

A Since most of my practice is court-appointed criminal defense, I occasionally hear this question. I feel like a public defender. Since San Mateo County doesn’t have a formal public defender’s office, I am a private attorney.

The United States Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. In that case, the Court voted unanimously that state trial courts must provide lawyers for criminal defendants who cannot afford counsel. Since then, every county in the United States has devised some system of ensuring that every person accused of a crime has the benefit of a lawyer, whether or not financially capable of obtaining one.

Unfortunately, the “lawyer” part often seems lost from the “public defender” appellation. Apart from believing that public defenders do not care about their clients and/or are lazy, many people seem to think that public defenders are not actually attorneys. I’ve been the recipient of the “Would it be better, if I hired a real lawyer?” question as well. I inform the askers that court-appointed attorneys are “real” attorneys. They went to “real” law school and passed the “real” bar exam before being allowed to represent people in court.

The “Will my case get better?” typically arises during a discussion of the plea agreement. Would hiring another attorney make the outcome better? In most cases, resoundingly “No!” Public defenders practice exclusively in their county, and as a result, know the judges, the local practices and the district attorney’s office intimately. Besides which, the attorney’s identity should not change the offer, and a court-appointed attorney will get the same type of result as any retained attorney.

The attorney a person is assigned by the court-appointed system, whether that is a public defender’s office or some other court-appointment system, could be an excellent attorney or could be mediocre. The same goes when you search the Internet and hire an attorney.

Unless you know the person’s work and prior performance, there really is no way to ensure that you have a great attorney.

If you qualify for the assistance of a public defender, you would be best served by meeting with your court-appointed attorney, asking around about that person’s reputation and qualifications and seeing whether you can get along with the person before deciding that you need to hire a lawyer.

After all, one of the most important aspects of good criminal defense representation is for the client to feel empowered in the face of an overwhelming and harsh criminal justice system. The accused must feel like the representation vindicated his or her rights regardless of the outcome.

So, please meet with the court-appointed attorney, develop a relationship and see if you trust the person. Only hire another attorney if it seems that the court-appointed attorney is not making the effort to defend the case properly. Hiring an attorney by itself will not make the case any better.

Naresh Rajan is an attorney in San Mateo County.