A few weeks ago I was at a little party with a bunch of law students. They had a lot of questions for me about my job, and, of course, I explained to them how wonderful my job is and how it has made me so happy.
One girl in particular said, "I don't know if I want to be a public defender, I'm more interested in helping people with mental illness."
Um, yeah, it's unfortunate, but it turns out that a lot of people with mental illness get arrested. And can't afford an attorney. And end up with a public defender.
This is where the post about how we pick up cases comes in. I realize that it's very different in other offices and varies a lot from office to office - and for those of you looking for a public defender job, you may want to consider how different offices intake cases, if you feel that it's something important to you.
After some time developing general skills as a public defender, I think that you can use the intake system to your advantage, if you'd like, to develop a little bit of a niche.
I think most people think of niche lawyering in the private sector context - as a way to specialize and generate business. For example, there's one attorney that I frequently see in the courthouse who seems to represent only Chinese defendants. In fact, almost every Chinese defendant I've seen who hires a private attorney hires him. He is not Asian, but I think that he speaks a little Chinese, although not fluently. So, how did this come about? I've never spoken to him about it, but I assume a lot of it is word of mouth - people are going to trust a lawyer recommended within their own community. But perhaps he's also supplemented that by (and this is pure speculation) having an office in a Chinatown neighborhood, advertising in a Chinese newspaper, or having a Chinese interpreter or Chinese-speaking staff.
Again, I've never spoken to him about it, so I don't know if it has worked out this way because he just likes working with Chinese defendants and has, therefore, based his practice on what makes him happy, or whether he just had a smart business plan - filling a need for a criminal defense attorney in the Chinese community. I imagine that it's a little of both. And, either way, it's what I'd call "niche lawyering."
So, how does this apply to being a public defender? Depending on the intake method in your office, and your interests you may be able to (if you want to) develop your own niche. Now, obviously, in the P.D.'s office it's not a matter of making more money, but perhaps it could help you to build a specialized practice that you could eventually take into the public sector or that you'll just find more rewarding.
For example, let's say that you worked in the my office (or a P.D.'s office with a similar intake system) and you spoke some Chinese. While I mentioned in How I Got My Big Caseload that it's considered impolite to "shop" the cases, this does not apply when you're shopping for the more difficult cases or the cases no one wants. So, go ahead and pick up the few Chinese cases that appear every now and then. Eventually, other lawyers will say, "Hey I have a Chinese client on the phone and I can't find an interpreter, will you help me out?" or "I need to go on an investigation in Chinatown, can you come along?" And maybe you'll know a few more people in the neighborhood, or the best Chinese interpreter to call, or just have more credibility because the locals know that you've helped their friends.
The same can be said not only for nationalities of clients but also for types of cases. If you find that you like the drunk driving cases, if you've tried a few and you're on a roll, no one is going to stop you from picking them up when they come along. And it might even mean less work for you, since you've already familiarized yourself with the evidence that commonly comes up in these cases (breathalyzers, coordination tests, etc.) and it will probably mean better representation for your clients, who will have a lawyer who can get up to speed with the evidence more quickly.
Or, finally, like the law student I met at this party, if you find that you like working with the mentally ill clients, that they relate to you, by all means, search them out (You'll see that it only takes a little practice to recognize types of cases that most frequently are committed by the mentally ill - stalking or arson, for example. Or, sometimes you can find prior mental health commitments right on a client's rap sheet.)
There's one man in my office who comes to mind immediately. He has an amazingly patient demeanor and a background in psychology. Once in a while I have to call him from arraignments when I have a mentally ill client that is so upset that he won't even come out of the pens to be arraigned. This attorney will work with you on any case involving mental illness, will go with you to meet your client to assess their mental illness, and will go with you to a competency exam. He keeps himself up to date with all new caselaw involving mental illness and knows all of the good programs and all of the best contacts at each program.
He's carved out a little niche for himself. I'm not suggesting that he could make a profitable living out of it in the private sector (although someone with a niche in drunk driving cases probably could), but he finds it rewarding. And his expertise provides a very valuable service to a very needy group of clients.
I think the areas available for niching are infinite and you could probably bring almost any other legal specialty into the mix. About a decade ago, no one would've anticipated how quickly sex offender registration and community notification laws would evolve - and if you were the person in your office who showed an interest in the area and took some initiative to become an expert, who knows where it could lead you? Maybe you'd end up running a training in your office, or maybe you'd end up touring the country lecturing lawyers or law enforcement on the topic.
So, two points come out of this. First, when I was a law student looking at public defender jobs, I mostly just based on my search on location. But, knowing more now, I feel that the office's intake style is really important and something that I would definitely advise considering. And, even if you ultimately choose a job based on location, I think the topic is at least a decent thing to bring up during an interview when you're asked if you have any questions.
But my bigger point is, and the point that I was trying to make to these law students, is that we handle many different types of cases in the public defender's office and that it would be foolish to say, "I was thinking of applying to the public defender's office, but really I'm more interested in..." Homelessness, Immigration, Working with the Mentally Ill, Working with the ____ Community, Working on Constitutional Issues of _____, or Focusing on something that will be profitable for me someday, etc.. Whatever it is, you might be surprised by how much it ties into the work of the public defender's office.
It's one of the things that keeps the job interesting.