How to become a public defender

  • Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

By Hillary Mantis

Many law students dream of a career working in the public sector. But actually finding a job, and knowing where to look, is not so easy. I recently talked to Denise Fabiano, Associate Appellate Attorney with the Legal Aid Society, about her career path.

How and when did you decide that you wanted to be a public defender?
When I was in eighth grade I did a report on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. I learned that Bruno Richard Hauptman, a poor immigrant, was convicted and executed for the crime. The evidence was circumstantial and Hauptman proclaimed his innocence until his death. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the research on the trial convinced me that the death penalty was barbaric and imperfect. I became interested in the role of a criminal defense attorney as the ultimate check on the criminal justice system.

What did you do in law school towards that end to figure out if it would be the right career, and how to make yourself more marketable?
I took elective classes in the area of criminal law and related fields. I found a summer job with a criminal defense firm, and also took a summer job with the Attorney General’s office.

How did you obtain your position with Legal Aid?
They tend to hire a fall class of new attorneys. I sent a resume in response to a posting on their website and was called for an interview.

What are some of the primary duties of the position?
To represent indigent defendants on appeal in criminal cases. This includes writing appellate briefs, appearing for oral argument, and sometimes pursuing habeas corpus relief in federal court.

What do you like best about it?
Working with our clients is usually very satisfying and interesting. The legal issues are engaging and we have a lot of institutional autonomy in determining what direction to take a case.

What would you recommend that interested law students do to gain the necessary experience to be marketable for a career as a public defender?
Taking advantage of criminal law clinics while in school is ideal. Securing summer positions — even if it means volunteering — is extremely helpful in not only gaining experience, but developing contacts in the field.

How do they generally hire?
They post job announcements on their website, so be proactive about checking an organization’s website. They often hire former interns.

Do public defender’s offices generally hire summer interns?
Yes, they hire summer interns. Be prepared to apply early in the fall before the summer in which you hope to intern!

Note: There is frequently summer funding available through law schools which can help subsidize an unpaid summer internship. Check with your law school’s career office for more information. There is also potential partial federal loan forgiveness for lawyers who pursue full-time careers in public service. In addition, many law schools offer LRAP (Loan Repayment Assistance Programs) for graduates entering public service careers.

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Hillary Mantis consults with law students, lawyers and pre-law students. She is the author of Alternative Careers for Lawyers, and a Director of the Pre-Law Program at Fordham University. You can write to Hillary at altcareer@aol.com.