Public Defender Career Overview & Salaries


Our public defender salary guide provides data about average compensation across the US. Additionally, we have a guest post from a career public defender who explains the benefits, challenges, and scope of a public defender's work.

Biglaw Salary Scale (Interactive) for 2021

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    CityYearSearch YearStateSalaryInflation-Adjusted
    National Average2021Y2021United States65938.55714285765938.557142857
    Albuquerque2021Y2021New Mexico6000060000
    Anchorage2021Y2021Alaska7618676186
    Atlanta2021Y2021Georgia6260062600
    Austin2021Y2021Texas6363863638
    Baltimore2021Y2021Maryland6172561725
    Billings2021Y2021Montana6510465104
    Birmingham2021Y2021Alabama4800048000
    Boise2021Y2021Idaho6426064260
    Boston2021Y2021Massachusetts6100061000
    Bridgeport2021Y2021Connecticut7245872458
    Burlington2021Y2021Vermont5809458094
    Charleston2021Y2021South Carolina6600066000
    Charleston2021Y2021West Virginia5170051700
    Charlotte2021Y2021North Carolina4950049500
    Cheyenne2021Y2021Wyoming5807858078
    Chicago2021Y2021Illinois6020560205
    Colorado Springs2021Y2021Colorado6426064260
    Columbus2021Y2021Ohio5800058000
    Dallas2021Y2021Texas7505875058
    Denver2021Y2021Colorado6426064260
    Des Moines2021Y2021Iowa5534855348
    Detroit2021Y2021Michigan5700057000
    El Paso2021Y2021Texas6193961939
    Fargo2021Y2021North Dakota5535655356
    Fort Worth2021Y2021Texas-!ERROR! E27 does not contain a number or expression
    Fresno2021Y2021California6624866248
    Honolulu2021Y2021Hawaii7300073000
    Houston2021Y2021Texas8500085000
    Indianapolis2021Y2021Indiana5700057000
    Jackson2021Y2021Mississippi5500055000
    Jacksonville2021Y2021Florida5100051000
    Kansas City2021Y2021Missouri4840851000
    Las Vegas2021Y2021Nevada7708448408
    Little Rock2021Y2021Arkansas5603956039
    Long Beach2021Y2021California8970789707
    Los Angeles2021Y2021California8970789707
    Louisville2021Y2021Kentucky4500045000
    Manchester2021Y2021New Hampshire5295052950
    Memphis2021Y2021Tennessee-!ERROR! E41 does not contain a number or expression
    Miami2021Y2021Florida5300053000
    Milwaukee2021Y2021Wisconsin6240062400
    Minneapolis2021Y2021Minnesota6580065800
    Nashville2021Y2021Tennessee6691166911
    Newark2021Y2021New Jersey6687766877
    New Orleans2021Y2021Louisiana5000050000
    NYC - Bronx2021Y2021New York7344073440
    NYC - Brooklyn2021Y2021New York7344073440
    NYC - Manhattan2021Y2021New York7344073440
    NYC - Queens2021Y2021New York7344073440
    NYC - Staten Island2021Y2021New York7344073440
    Oakland2021Y2021California104540104540
    Oklahoma City2021Y2021Oklahoma4500045000
    Omaha2021Y2021Nebraska6000060000
    Philadelphia2021Y2021Pennsylvania5700057000
    Phoenix2021Y2021Arizona6148461484
    Portland2021Y2021Maine-!ERROR! E58 does not contain a number or expression
    Portland2021Y2021Oregon6444364443
    Providence2021Y2021Rhode Island6400064000
    Raleigh2021Y2021North Carolina4950049500
    Sacramento2021Y2021California115257115257
    Salt Lake City2021Y2021Utah7000070000
    San Antonio2021Y2021Texas6186061860
    San Diego2021Y2021California7425674256
    San Francisco2021Y2021California131000131000
    San Jose2021Y2021California121430121430
    Seattle2021Y2021Washington7077370773
    Sioux Falls2021Y2021South Dakota7111571115
    St. Louis2021Y2021Missouri4840848408
    Tucson2021Y2021Arizona6350063500
    Tulsa2021Y2021Oklahoma4500045000
    Virginia Beach2021Y2021Virginia5570755707
    Washington D.C2021Y2021District of Columbia6621666216
    Wichita2021Y2021Kansas5568355683
    Wilmington2021Y2021Delaware6437764377

    Note: Different regions handle public defenders in different ways. In jurisdictions that rely entirely on private attorneys through an appointment system, we could not come up with a reliable way to calculate how much a starting public defender would make. For NYC, we used the numbers provided by the Legal Aid Society after consulting with several criminal lawyers in NYC who told us that both the Legal Aid Society and the designated defender officers are similarly prestigious. The designated defender offices in NYC also generally pay about the same, ranging from $70,000 to $74,000.

    More and more states and localities are increasing public defense funding and creating full-time public defender offices.

    There has never been a better time to choose public defense. But, is this the career for you? Is it worth passing on opportunities in the private sector, or in other non-profit and government fields? Here’s a guide to figuring out if public defense should be in your post-law school plans.

    We gathered this data by calling multiple offices in the 50 largest cities in the United States, plus making sure we have at least one city from every state, for a total of 72 cities. While we’ve been able to gather enough data to release our research, we still welcome anonymous contributions to help further improve our data.

    Here’s what we’ve found:

    • The average public defender salary in the United States is $66,182. This is slightly less than what we found for the average assistant district attorney starting salary.
    • The highest starting salary is San Francisco which pays starting public defenders $131,000.
    • The lowest starting salaries can be found in Louisville, Oklahoma City and Tulsa which each pay starting public defenders $45,000.

    What does a public defender do?

    Let’s start by talking about what a public defender does and what kind of jobs are usually available. There is a constitutional right to an attorney for anyone accused of a crime, whether that person can afford a lawyer or not. Public defenders are the effectuation of that right, representing indigent people at the various stages of a criminal case.

    Most public defender jobs involve trial-level representation, which can be broken down into 4 parts:

    • Trial-level public defenders often meet clients within a day or two of an arrest.
    • They then handle cases through initial proceedings like the preliminary hearing and arraignment, making numerous bail arguments and gathering facts.
    • They then file and litigate motions to suppress evidence or press other procedural advantages.
    • Finally, they handle the case through its “conclusion,” either by arranging for dismissal, negotiating a plea deal, or taking the case to trial, and then conducting a possible sentencing.

    Aspects of trial-level representation

    Public defenders at the trial level have a number of unique responsibilities. They must meet with and build trusting relationships with clients and their families. They must also investigate the case, which can include interviewing witnesses, scene investigation, and other forms of field work. They argue constitutional issues throughout the case, including release from custody, evidence suppression, and trial procedure. They persuade prosecutors, judges, and juries on issues of guilt, innocence, and the appropriate sentence.

    At first, most public defenders start with traffic, misdemeanor, or low-level felony cases. Eventually, they begin to handle extremely serious cases, some of which receive significant public and media attention.

    Public defenders also work on appeals

    Some public defenders also handle cases at different stages of the criminal process. Trial-level attorneys may sometimes handle certain appeals, and some public defenders are specifically hired to do full-time appellate work.

    The same is true for post-conviction work, or what many people refer to as “habeas.” Appellate work involves less client interaction and field work, and instead an extreme focus on written and oral advocacy. Post-conviction work often involves a mix of all of the above, but from a very different posture than traditional trial or appellate work.

    Financial benefits of public defense work

    There are so many reasons to choose public defense work. Some are practical in an immediate sense.

    Benefits packages

    Most public defender jobs feature the excellent benefit packages that other government employees receive. There are often affordable and comprehensive health insurance options for you and your immediate family. Usually, public defenders are covered by pension systems or have access to 401(k) and 457(b) retirement accounts that feature sizable employer contributions. There is favorable sick and vacation leave accrual.

    Time spent as a public defender counts toward public service loan forgiveness, so you don’t need to figure out how to pay back the entire balance of your student loans using a salary like those in the survey results.

    Job security

    Moreover, the job is usually not subject to the whims of the legal economy. There are no recessions to weather in an occupational sense. Even if the economy affects government revenue, the constitutional nature of the job often protects it from funding cuts or layoffs. Unlike the private sector, your clients are assigned to you. There is no stressful billing, marketing, or business management whatsoever.

    Valuable experience that transfers well

    Other reasons to choose public defense are practical in a long-term sense because the advancement and exit opportunities are generally excellent. First, many systems and offices feature attainable leadership and supervisory positions. Those positions, and more experience and years of service in general, often bring higher salaries, better paid leave accrual, easier-to-manage caseloads, and the ability to earn recognition for work on high-profile cases.

    Second, the amount of in-court experience that most public defenders get also prepares them well for a possible career change. Often, public defenders enter private criminal defense practice or civil litigation with significantly more courtroom advocacy expertise than those around them.

    The value of meaningful work

    Finally, there are reasons to become a public defender that might be entirely personal to you as an individual. While many attorneys work on cases that are fundamentally about the exchange of money or property, public defenders fight for the personal dignity of people with no resources at all. The job involves an inherent commitment to social justice and a belief in fighting for the underprivileged to balance the scales of justice, particularly on racial and economic dimensions. This is something a public defender gets to live and experience nearly every day.

    Also, public defenders routinely get to defend the constitutional principles that undergird American society. Essentially, they collect a paycheck from the government to fight and frustrate the government. Depending on your personal values, public defense work can bring you feelings of accomplishment and pride that other careers would only sporadically offer.

    Talk to a Public Defender About Your Career

    Want career advice from an actual public defender? Sometimes, all you want to do is talk to someone who is further along on their career path than you. We get it. That's why we provide consulting hours where we connect you with an experienced (5+ years) public defender who genuinely wants to help you get started with a career in public defense, whether you're a law student, new lawyer or someone interested in a career transition.

    We're so confident that you're going to love the hour you spend talking to a public defender that we have a 100% money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied for any reason (no questions asked). Do yourself a favor and cut through the noise by talking to a public defender about your career.

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    Cons to being a public defender

    High pressure, high caseloads

    There are also a lot of reasons that public defense work might not be a great fit for some aspiring lawyers. Again, many are immediately practical in nature. Though the benefit packages are usually excellent, public defender salaries are often significantly lower. As you can see from the survey results above, many new public defenders, especially those in popular urban areas, may struggle to balance housing expenses, loan repayments, and other bills.

    Additionally, public defense work often involves significant extra hours in order to do the job well. A “normal” week can easily involve 50-60 hours to keep up with basic responsibilities, and a significant event like a trial can mean that 80-100 hour weeks await. Caseloads are often uncomfortably high. Consequently, many public defenders understandably feel that they cannot provide truly adequate representation to every client.

    Negative opinions of others

    With regard to long-term practical issues, time in public defense can curtail some loftier career prospects. Many in the legal community still incorrectly view public defenders as second-rate lawyers. In some jurisdictions, the profession is generally viewed with distaste, and public defenders seeking judgeships or other high-profile positions may face political opposition. In rare instances, there is even community backlash for handling high-profile cases and asserting the rights of unpopular clients.

    Professional challenges

    Finally, just as there are intangible reasons to become a public defender, there are similar reasons to pass for other opportunities. Some lawyers may have a difficult time handling certain kinds of allegations or enduring constant questions from friends and loved ones about how they can represent “those people.”

    Public defenders also face unique client-related challenges. Communication with clients can be difficult because of income and cultural issues. Many clients inherently distrust public defenders, either from prior personal or community experience. Dealing with these issues can cause many promising lawyers to quickly exit public defense work.

    Success is hard to measure

    Also, all defenders — public or private — “lose” a lot. Case dismissals, amazing plea deals, and trial wins can sometimes be rare for all sorts of uncontrollable reasons. Most public defenders cannot professionally measure success in the same way that prosecutors or civil litigators can.

    Four factors in choosing a career in public interest

    If you’re interested in a career in public defense work, you’ll need to think about a variety of factors relating to where you want to work.

    1. Type of court

    The majority of public defense jobs, particularly entry-level openings, are in state court defending people against allegations that they violated a state statute. Some openings are in municipalities that provide counsel for defendants accused of violating city ordinances, which are often lower level infractions.

    Finally, some openings are in the federal defender system, defending clients that the United States government is prosecuting. As a general rule, federal openings are the most competitive and toughest for new law school graduates to obtain.

    2. Location

    When it comes to applying, you’ll need to consider obvious factors such as your personal and family needs regarding issues like money and geography. Then, learn about whether your desired location hires through a larger state or jurisdiction-wide system, as opposed to hiring conducted by individual offices. While some offices can be targeted directly, some larger public defender systems require willingness to be placed anywhere in the jurisdiction. This may involve thinking about location flexibility and an urban, suburban, or rural preference.

    3. Get prior experience with internships and clinics

    In terms of being a competitive applicant, most public defender systems are not focused on grades, journal participation, or mock trial and moot court. Instead, the best offices value commitment to the work and the client population. The work can be incredibly difficult, and having attorneys committed to the cause helps ensure quality representation. Many offices also face high turnover rates, and so they are always seeking attorneys who have a better chance of remaining committed to the work for a longer period of time.

    The best thing you can probably do as a law student to increase your chances of becoming a public defender are interning with a public defender system or participating in your law school’s criminal defense clinic.

    4. Interview them

    Finally, when you are researching and interviewing, do as you should with any job and ensure that the system or office is a good fit for you. Make sure that your values and reasons for doing the job are shared by those you’ll be working with. Find out about the training and support you’ll receive as a new hire; those things can be critical to your ability to quickly learn and succeed.

    Talk to as many people as possible who are familiar with where you’re applying, and make sure you’re comfortable with the office culture and working environment. Just like any other workplace, some offices can be extremely rewarding and uplifting, and others can be extremely difficult or even toxic. Leadership and values make a huge difference.

    Takeaways

    Being a public defender is not the right choice for every lawyer, but it is the perfect choice for some. No other profession offers the same balance of courtroom experience, client interaction, constitutional litigation, and potential for social change. If you want to be a practicing litigator, consider all your options, but definitely don’t overlook a career in public defense. It’s a job that could bring you immense happiness and fulfillment, and could bring amazing benefits to the people and communities that you would serve.

    Kelson Bohnet

    Kelson Bohnet A career public defender, Kelson earned his J.D. and Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Denver in 2012. He is currently a trial lawyer in the Death Penalty Defense Unit of the Kansas Board of Indigents’ Defense Services. Previously, he served as a trial-level capital defender for the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, and was also an attorney in the Denver Trial Office of the Colorado State Public Defender.