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Become a Public Defender: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a public defender. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a public defender. View article »

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Public Defender?

A public defender is an attorney who works for a local, state, or federal agency defending accused criminals. Their job tasks may include researching laws, writing documents to submit to court, representing their clients in court, or negotiating plea bargains.

The work of a public defender is stressful, particularly when they are defending clients in court. They often work long hours to research cases or prep clients. Public defenders must be licensed attorneys, which usually requires completing a law degree, passing a state's bar exam, and being admitted to the state's bar association.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Degree Field Law
Licensure License required
Key Skills Critical thinking, analytical reasoning, negotiation, research and writing skills, and proficiency with LexisNexis, Westlaw, project management, and accounting software
Salary (2015) $54,009 (Median annual salary for public defenders)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, CareerOneStop, Job postings in September 2012, Payscale.com

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Steps to Becoming a Public Defender

Step 1: Complete an Undergraduate Degree Program

Most law schools require applicants to possess a bachelor's degree. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states there is no specific field of study for aspiring lawyers to major in. According to the BLS, many law students possess bachelor's degrees in economics, history, or government. Bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice are available. Completion of one of these degree programs provides aspiring public defenders with knowledge about how the criminal justice system works.

Step 2: Take the LSAT

Law schools require that applicants submit transcripts and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. The LSAT tests a student's critical thinking, reading and analytical reasoning skills. The majority of students take the test during their junior year of study.

Success Tip:

  • Prepare for the LSAT. Because admission to law school is competitive, earning a high score on the LSAT increases the likelihood of a student's admission to school. Several companies offer multi-week LSAT prep courses that provide instruction about the exam's format and give test-taking techniques.

Step 3: Graduate from Law School

Law school usually requires three years of full-time study. During the first year, law students complete classes in basic law subjects, such as property, tort, contract, and constitutional law. The second and third years are dedicated to elective classes, internships, and clinical experiences.

Some schools allow students to concentrate their studies in criminal law. This concentration gives aspiring public defenders a comprehensive education about criminal litigation practices. Classes in these concentrations cover topics like capital punishment, evidence, federal criminal law, jurisprudence, and jury instructions.

Success Tips:

  • Take elective courses in criminal law. Regardless of whether law students complete a concentration, taking elective classes focusing on criminal law topics provides them with a solid foundation in the field. Examples of these classes include mental issues and criminal law, innocence investigations, death penalty law, and criminal procedure.
  • Complete a public defender internship. Many schools allow 2nd- and 3rd-year law students to complete internships at local, state, or federal public defender offices. In an internship, students receive experience working as public defenders.

Step 4: Pass the Bar Exam

The BLS reports that every state requires attorneys to be admitted to its bar association prior to practicing law. Usually, to be admitted to a bar association, an individual must pass an exam called the bar exam. The format of the bar exam differs in each state, but may include multiple days of testing with both multiple-choice and essay questions. The test covers constitutional law, torts, real property, contracts, criminal law, and evidence.

Success Tip:

  • Prepare to take the bar. Several companies offer bar exam prep courses that provide test-taking techniques, and familiarize students with the content of a state's bar exam. Some of these courses include practice test exams. Completing one of these courses may increase the likelihood of passing the bar exam on the first try.

Step 5: Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), all but four states require applicants seeking admission to the bar to pass the MPRE exam. This exam takes two hours and five minutes and is a 60-question multiple-choice exam. The MPRE measures the aspiring lawyer's knowledge of standards in relation to professional conduct and how the law is applied in cases of lawyer malpractice. The exam is administered separately from the bar exam three times a year.

Step 6: Work as a Public Defender

State, county, and federal governments operate public defender offices. These offices hire newly graduated, or experienced attorneys to act as public defenders. According to job postings in September of 2012, employers are typically looking for those with an interest in working with the poor and indigent, as well as working with juveniles, the chemically dependent, and mentally ill.

Step 7: Earn a Master of Laws for Career Advancement

Law schools offer Master of Laws (LLM) degree programs in trial advocacy, criminal law, or federal criminal law practice and procedure. These programs, which are designed for licensed attorneys, provide advanced knowledge pertinent to working as a public defender. Courses in these programs cover topics like evidence advocacy, federal sentencing, criminal pre-trial practice, and federal criminal investigation law.

Hopeful public defenders should earn an undergraduate degree, take the LSAT exam, graduate from law school, pass the bar exam and the NPRE, then seek employment as a public defender in a state, county, or federal government office.

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