A Day in the Life: Public Defender

Published: Feb 06, 2019

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A Day in the Life: Third-year attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C.

8:45 a.m.: I arrive at the office, check my schedule and my messages, and then walk to court.

9:15 a.m.: I jump from hearing to hearing. At the local criminal courthouse, I usually have at least two or three hearings for various cases, in different rooms, loosely scheduled at the same time. (Unlike some assistant district attorneys, you are not assigned solely to one particular courtroom.) What this means is, starting a few minutes early, you hop from courtroom to courtroom to get a sense for when the judges will actually call your cases and to alert the courtroom staff about your whereabouts.

When one of my cases is finally called, I stand across from the prosecutor and brief the judge on the case’s status. My client is also present; if he’s incarcerated, officials from the jail escort him to the courtroom. During the hearing, if my client is facing arraignment, the prosecutor will formally present the charges against him or her, and my client will offer an initial plea. If my client has decided not to go to trial, the prosecutor and I might simply ask the judge to “continue” the case while I negotiate the best possible plea deal with the prosecutor. If my client has decided to go to trial—as many of my clients do—then I use the initial status hearing to set a trial date.

Today, I have two hearings. One is a robbery and credit card fraud case. (My client allegedly stole a credit card and used it.) The other is a misdemeanor theft. (My practice level is “general felony,” which means that most of my cases are low-level felonies; however, an occasional misdemeanor pops up from time to time.)

11:30 a.m.: The day’s hearings are over, and I walk back to the office. I have a trial coming up the day after tomorrow on a gun possession case, and I need to put the finishing touches on my opening statement and my cross examination. Once I polish my draft, I can pass it to my superior for comments. I might even practice speaking it a couple of times in front of my colleagues.

(I’ve done more trials than I can count at this job. It’s an enormous responsibility, and pretty stressful. I feel it’s worth it when a client thanks me and tells me that I’m the first person who ever helped them or thought that they could amount to anything. These moments make up for the hard days, when you feel unappreciated and overwhelmed, or, worst of all, when one of your clients is killed—sometimes just for living in the wrong neighborhood. This was especially tough during my first year, when I worked with juvenile defendants.)

12:30 p.m.: I leave the office and grab lunch to eat at my desk, while continuing to touch up my opening statement.

2:00 p.m.: I draft a motion. I wish I had the luxury to focus entirely on my gun trial that’s two days away, but there is much else to do. I also must file a motion to suppress evidence seized in a narcotics case. I will make the argument that the evidence was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. I get to work researching and drafting the memo. Other types of motions I sometimes file include a motion to compel certain information from prosecutors, or a motion to sever co-defendants, so that each defendant gets his or her own trial. I handle about 30 active, pretrial cases. This is actually a light load for public defenders. A public defender in a less well-staffed office in another city might handle a couple hundred cases.

3:30 p.m.: Investigation status. I meet with one of my investigators. Because I work in a well-funded office, I have a couple of investigators helping me, who describe the witnesses they’ve found in yet another of my drug cases. I decide to ride out with the investigator to meet the most important witness to nail down what the witness saw and how it impacts my case.

4:40 p.m.: Checking the evidence. After meeting the witness in his home, I stop at the police station to view the evidence in this drug case. I take a look at the money seized and the bags of drugs; I check their color and condition, the serial numbers on the money. I want to see whether the evidence checks out with the descriptions by the witnesses. I also just want to make sure I know how everything looks, so there are no surprises if and when this case goes to trial. On a couple of afternoons a week, I might visit the jail to confer with one or more of my clients. Because of security protocols at the jail, this process can take anywhere from one-and-a-half to four hours. Today, I have more research and writing to do, so I head back to my office and plan my client meetings for tomorrow.

5:30 p.m.: I get back to my office and do more work polishing off my opening statement and cross-examination questions for the gun trial two days from now. I also do a bit more work on my motion to suppress for one of my drug cases. I think about hiring an expert to speak to the mental health of a defendant up for sentencing in a different gun case. I send an e-mail to colleagues asking for suggestions on a good expert. I have already helped this particular defendant enroll in an alcohol treatment program, and I hope the sentencing judge will see that he is getting his life on track.

8:00 p.m.: I leave the office and catch a train home. Although I’ve often caught the last train home at midnight, some days I manage to leave by eight. Of course, there is always more work I could do: another motion I could file, an area of cross examination I could add, more investigation I could do, or another few times I could practice giving my opening statement. Weekend work is frequent. But for now, I’m calling it a day.

This post is an excerpt from Vault Career Guide to Law, Second Edition. You can find more Day in the Life passages in this guide, as well as lawyer Q&As, resume samples, interviewing advice, and more. Click here to access the guide. If you are a student, your school may offer Vault access—check with your career services office for login information to access this guide and other Vault content.

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