Monday, March 25, 2013
Last week, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision, some of the nation's leading legal figures lauded the outstanding contributions made by the public defense bar. Public defenders indeed do deserve plaudits for their dedication and hard work in representing the poor and often despised. Most public defenders are devoted, diligent, relatively poorly paid, and work in difficult situation and under difficult conditions.
To me, however, the unsung heroes of the defense bar are those private lawyers who ably and diligently represent persons of modest income who are not poor enough to be provided free counsel by the state, but poor enough not to be able to pay substantial legal fees. Those lawyers, like public defenders, work in difficult situations and under difficult conditions. They often have no steady income, no employer-provided retirement or health benefits and sometimes no office. They do not have readily available ancillary services, such as advisory counsel, investigators, social workers and mitigation specialists. Often, they have to perform those functions themselves.
As insubstantial as the resources for public defense are, the resources available to many private lawyers -- whatever meager savings the client is willing to part with, whatever portion of the client's paycheck he has left over after paying for shelter and food and other expenses -- are often less.
This bar, to be sure, is an uneven one. Unlike public defenders, almost all of whom have at least a modicum of competence and expertise and devotion, some in the private bar are part-time or occasional criminal defense lawyers with little criminal experience and little dedication to the representation of their clients. Many, however, are able, experienced, energetic and devoted, despite being paid a fraction of what they deserve. Those unsung lawyers deserve credit and recognition.