Grad School Resource Center

Discover valuable resources to assist you in your program search and decision-making process.

Specialized Degree: Law

Why Become a Public Defender?

December 2021

Much like medical school, once you decide to go to law school, you may choose a specialty that you want to pursue in your professional career or remain a general practitioner. There are a variety of law specialties and subspecialties within the fields of tax, business, real estate, family, criminal prosecution or defense, corporate, government, and many others. But those who choose to become public defenders are a special breed of lawyer.

For the greater good

John F. Kennedy once said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” It’s by this philosophy that the public defender of the indigent live and breathe. Many undoubtedly must defend not only their clients in court, but also their very jobs to their friends and families, who wonder why they would choose such a challenging, often thankless job while often getting paid considerably less than their private practice peers. Passion for justice and equity is often the answer.

Thanks to the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights and a 1963 Supreme Court ruling, every person in the United States is entitled to a fair trial and legal representation. Those with little to no voice often find the justice system working against them and passing judgment without cause. And so the public defender attempts to act as a bridge between the indigent and privileged, while battling social prejudices within the justice system. This can be a frustrating task for the public defender who may be dealing with potentially dozens of cases at once.

It takes a special kind of person

Again, it goes back to passion — finding justice for the often prejudged. People go into the practice of law for different reasons. Some may do it for money or because they enjoy litigating, and some want to genuinely affect change. This latter category would be where public defenders play a role. It may be an uphill battle in a system some consider rigged against their clientele, but many take up the calling.

Choosing a subspecialty

Within the indigent defense specialty, there are subspecialties, such as capital defense, juvenile defense, family defense, structural work that deals with the inequities in the justice system itself, immigration and international defense. Within each of these subspecialties there are some fellowships available, as well as nonprofit organizations that may offer law students valuable internship experience.

How to become a public defender

As far as the process to become a public defender, assuming you plan to apply to an ABA-accredited law school, you must take an admissions test, search for and attend law school, and, depending on which state you plan to practice in, pass the BAR exam. Additionally, most states require that public defenders take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). After acquiring some work experience, many public defenders may choose to acquire a Master of Laws (LLM), which focuses on advanced concepts pertaining to public defenders.

While a career in law may be a goal or interest for many, a career as a public defender is a calling, and one that is perhaps needed now more than ever.

Related Resources

How to Start Your Grad School Search

Returning to school, whether right after undergrad or after years in the workforce, can be an overwhelming decision with lots of factors to take into consideration.

How to Make Grad School Affordable

Two factors weigh heavily when deciding to go to grad school: time and money