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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…
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
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with animal abuse, she says, “I just can’t get
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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
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 www.abanet.org 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
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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
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.
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-
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