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Public Defenders: Law in Action [by Erica Winter] Public defenders have one of the toughest gigs in the legal industry - but also one of the most rewarding. Sacrificing the big paycheck to help those in need, public defenders find job satisfaction -- and excellent training -- amid some of the most emotionally-taxing circumstances.

Bored with your work? Becoming a public de-

ence in people’s lives, [that’s] very satisfying.”

fender could solve that problem for you. Not a

end up in prison or be killed, says Lee Coggiola. “It is hard to be poor,” she says. Police

profession for the timid, standing up for those

Being a defense attorney is not about agreeing

officers do not go around knocking down the

who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer (“indi-

with things the person may have done, but in-

doors of the middle class and rooting through

gent defense”) is incredibly busy, often noble,

stead, it is about “respect for the law and the

their homes, but this is not uncommon in poor

sometimes disturbing, frequently underpaid

Constitution, and about treating people as hu-

communities, she says.

and underappreciated - and never dull.

man beings,” says Goemann. It is easy to think of defendants as “those people,” he says, but

But what about the man who Coggiola defend-

“It’s the best job in the whole world,” says Lee

when you meet the defendant and talk one-on-

ed who killed a woman and then threw her

Coggiola, former public defender, now Chief

one, you understand that this is a real person

three-year-old child into an icy river? People

Staff Attorney for the South Carolina Court of

with real problems, “not just labels.”

would ask her: “How can you care about this man?”

Appeals, Columbia. Coggiola’s first trial as a public defender was Coggiola became a lawyer in a mid-career

a rape trial where, according to all the evi-

The answer: There is a misperception that

shift after working at IBM and caring for her

dence against him, the defendant was guilty.

an indigent defender’s job is to “get people

young children. Out of law school, she clerked

She tried to get her client to plead guilty and

off,” says Coggiola, even when they are guilty.

for a judge who became her mentor and

get a lesser jail term, but he refused, insisting

“That’s not what I’m doing at all,” she says. It

guided her into indigent defense work.

that they go to trial. Eventually, he was sen-

is the public defender’s job to make sure the

tenced to 30 years in prison.

process is fair - even for poor people. It is to

Coggiola worked in indigent defense and

make sure that the government follows the

criminal appeals for 15 years, and then spent

Even knowing what might happen, “he had

five years as the Chief Public Defender of

the right to be tried, and he chose that right,”

Richland County (which includes Columbia).

Coggiola says. After her closing arguments,

When she was a public defender, often her

In that office, 16 lawyers handled 7,300 cases

she sat back down and saw that the defendant

clients were “guilty of something involved

a year. “That was lawyering - I felt like a law-

was crying. “He said, ‘no one has ever stood

with the incident,” Coggiola says. The point of

yer,” she says.

up for me like that before,’” says Coggiola.

being an indigent defender is not to have the

Richard Goemann was a public defender for

This is one of the pluses of doing this job:

eight years, first in Alexandria Va., then as

helping people who are not being helped by


person found innocent; the point is to make sure the government plays fair.

Director of the public defender’s office in Fair-

anyone else. Your colleagues will also add

Coggiola has seen prosecutors “overcharge”

fax, Va., both in suburban Washington, D.C.

value to this profession - “there’s no greater

the accused, piling on charges that are not up-

Indigent defense is “the most important work

group than public defenders,” says Coggiola.

held by the evidence. A public defender works to get that pile whittled down to a fair outcome

a lawyer can do,” he says. Currently, Goemann is the head of the Virginia

Some of the hard parts of this job are also the

that fits the evidence that the government

reasons to do it…

actually has.

Being the only person to stand by another can

Still, there was one type of case that Coggiola

be its own reward.

couldn’t do: animal torture. She does not

Public Defender Commission in Richmond. It is important to represent people who are being singled out or vilified; it’s “meaningful work,” says Goemann, “it really made a differ-


know why, with all the terrible things done to Some poor people just assume that they will

people that she heard of over the years, but

continued on back


with animal abuse, she says, “I just can’t get

1. 800. 973. 1177


Public Interest Advising.

past it.” There is no money in defending the poor.

That office is a separate career services office

Indigent defense cases are court ordered

As obvious as this is, the reality of it can hit

(the law school has two), funded by endow-

to an office, not an individual attorney, says

hard. The majority of indigent defenders make

ment, for Harvard Law students interested in

Coggiola. Case assignments are determined

between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. This is

pursuing careers in government, non-profits,

within the office, as is the policy for ‘difficult

the main reason why attorneys drawn to this

unions, public defense, prosecution, founda-


work only do it for two or three years after law

tions, and other public service law.

school. With monthly loan payments of $600+ While head of the Richland County, S.C., public

a month, on top of food and rent, many simply

Harvard will forgive all law school and some

defender’s office, Coggiola would adjust the

cannot afford to do this job for longer. “It’s

undergraduate loans (on a debt-to-income

assignments “if one of the lawyers in my office

heartbreaking,” says Lee Coggiola.

assessment) for law graduates that go into

really had a problem with a particular type of

public service law, including indigent defense,

case,” she says. “Amazingly, it was rare. We

Aid on this front could come from a bill of-

all knew what we were there to do.”

fering some student loan relief to those who

says Shabecoff.

commit to serve at least three years as a

Personal finance is not the only money issue.

public defender or prosecutor. “The Prosecu-

Government funding for indigent defense

tors and Defenders Incentive Act” (S. 1091),

programs in the states has been hit hard

For Richard Goemann, one of the hardest

introduced last May by Senator Richard Durbin

in recent years by cuts in state and federal

parts of a job in indigent defense was the

(D-Ill.), has 19 cosponsors.


the clients are poor, it is ok to “learn how to

This bill is “incredibly important,” says

For example, Virginia gets a failing grade for

be a lawyer on them,” he says. There is also a

Richard Goemann. He, like Coggiola, has seen

indigent defense from a new study commis-

misconception that any lawyer can just walk

staff leave public defense work due to rising

sioned by the American Bar Association,

into this job and start doing it, he says.

loan repayment costs. Prosecutors already

released February 2. The state’s system

get some loan forgiveness, he says. This bill

provides “little more than assembly-line jus-

…and some of the hard parts are just hard.

perception of some attorneys that, because

His message? “Please learn before you start

would even out the playing field, and give both

tice,” according to the study, conducted by The

dabbling; people’s lives are at stake.”

specialties another leg up as well.

Spangenberg Group of West Newton, MA.

Lee Coggiola says the recurring systemic

Specifically, the bill calls for attorneys who

“Inadequate resources and no oversight

problem that loomed large in her work was

serve as public defenders for as least three

structure are the two primary factors behind a

the corrections system. With budgets be-

years to receive up to $6,000 per year on their

system that fails to provide lawyers with tools,

ing slashed, in South Carolina and in many

Stafford loans, capped at a total of $40,000

time and incentives to adequately represent

other states, prisons have little education or

per attorney. This amount could be reduced

defendants,” says an ABA release discussing

retraining, little mental heath care, and little

by pro-rating the benefit if the federal money

the study. [Go to to view the

rehab of any kind.

appropriated does not cover the full amount.

entire study. Go to www.spangenberggroup.

Coggiola saw many mentally ill people as a

Perkins loan forgiveness, already extended to

public defender. Many of them would have

prosecutors, will be given to public defend-

been fine if they had been able to afford medi-

ers if this bill goes through. For five years of

cation; because they were poor, they could not

service, both specialties can see complete

emann, who saw public defenders handling

control their illnesses, committed crimes, and

Perkins loan forgiveness.

100 cases simultaneously - each - while he

com/ to see more reports on state indigent

often went into prisons that could not afford

defense systems.] Virginia is not alone in this boat, says Go-

was head of the Fairfax, Va. public defender’s

medications for them either. “This is the hard

Some law schools, too, are leading the way

office. This is partly because there are no

part,” she says.

on loan forgiveness and aid for graduates

mandated caseload limits in the state, he

who go into public service. Harvard University

says. Other areas, such as Massachusetts or

Then there is probably the largest problem in

has “incredible loan forgiveness,” says Alexa

the District of Columbia, have these mandated

indigent defense, from the clients to the at-

Shabecoff, Assistant Dean for Public Interest

limits, so attorneys handle 30 or 40 cases at

torneys to the states:

Advising at Harvard’s Bernard Koteen Office of

a time.




1. 800. 973. 1177

Other localities are using the courts to im-

Even without citing herself as an example of

1. If your heart is in it - do it! Paul Woo says

prove the courts where the legislature will not

where you can go after indigent defense, Lee

that if you are enthusiastic and committed,

act - such as a ruling last year in New York

Coggiola says there are plenty of high-level

then you will have a good and productive

City saying that the payment levels of public

jobs you can find. Supreme Court justice, for


defenders violates defendants’ constitutional


rights (New York County Lawyers’ Association

2. You have two summers to work with in

v. The State of New York, 102987/00, February

Costas Pleicones was a public defender in

law school, plus work-study and internship

3, 2003).

South Carolina before he went on to sit on the

opportunities. Get a job or volunteer in a

South Carolina State Supreme Court, says

public defender’s office to see what the job is

Payment for public defenders in the city had

Coggiola. Several other judges in the state

really like, says Woo. Get experience, learn,

been $25 per hour for out-of-court work and

started off in indigent defense, as well.


called for payments of $90 per hour for all

Coggiola agrees that large private law firms

3. Join a clinical training program if your law

public defender work in New York State until

often want to recruit attorneys right out of law

school offers one, says Richard Goemann,

the state legislature could take up the issue

school so that they are “fresh on the partner

who, in addition to his practice experience,

and change the rate-setting guidelines.

track.” However, even if you have already gone

taught in a clinical law program in Washing-

this route, indigent defense work could still be

ton, DC. for three years. If your school does

Where you can go from this job.

an option for you.

not have a clinical program, intern.

$40 per hour for in-court work. The ruling

There is a perception among some law stu-

When she was Chief Public Defender, Coggiola

4. If you are already an attorney and are

dents that going into indigent defense right

worked out a deal with one of the large firms

considering a career shift, “invest in a good

out of law school will hinder their progress

in the area to lend her a lawyer for six months.

trial skills course,” says Goemann. Plus, you

into private firms, says Paul Woo, Associate

The firm paid the lawyer, and Coggiola’s office

can volunteer, and try to find a mentor to

Director for Recruitment and Information

trained him as a litigator, requiring the loaner

guide you. Sometimes, too, public defender

Management at the University of Chicago Law

attorney to sit second seat on at least two tri-

offices do have money set aside for training


als. “They loved it!” she says.

new hires.

While this could be partly true, the most

Many states have contracts with attorneys in

5. It’s not like you see on TV, warns Alexa Sha-

important thing to moving on in any career

private practice to do indigent defense, es-

becoff. Make sure this job fits your personality

is your experience and your success at your

pecially in rural counties, says Sarah Yatsko,

before you dive in. You need to enjoy - and also

work, says Woo. He hears from former stu-

Program Administrator of the Washington De-

hold up well - being “engaged in combat,”

dents who are tired of what they do and who

fender Association, Seattle. If you are already

she says. You need to not mind adversarial

say they want to move on. If the person has

in private practice, you could investigate this

situations. This does not necessarily mean you

not done well at that position, moving on can

route to doing indigent defense.

need to be aggressive - just able to handle the

be “a tougher transition,” he says.

fire. Plus, Yatsko says she sees many attorneys

Also, no matter how prestigious your law

start out doing public defense work and move

6. Also - be prepared for an unpopular career

school, you need patience with any lateral job

on to work in private firms, or open up their

choice, says Shabecoff. You need to know

move. “It takes time,” counsels Woo.

own shops. In fact, if you want to do criminal

that you are doing good work, no matter what

work at all, starting out in public defense

people say about your clients. You have to

The perception of immobility is not accurate,

“would serve you well,” she says. It’s an “ex-

want to represent the underdog.

Richard Goemann says. “Knowing your way

cellent stepping stone.”

around a court room is valuable” for any kind of future litigation job, he says. Being able to

7. Plan for your debt, recommends Shabecoff. Before you go, some advice.

think on your feet, do research, and try cases

8. Keep your future client in mind; you cannot

are skills that will serve you well in all areas

If you are inspired to pursue this incredibly

represent them well if you cannot communi-

of law.

difficult, highly rewarding career path, here is

cate with them. Learn how to talk to indigent

some advice to consider:

clients and people from other countries, say


Public Defenders: Law in Action  

Public defenders have one of the toughest and the most rewarding gigs in legal industry. Sacrificing the big paycheck to help those in need,...

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