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A Public Defender or Private Attorney: Which Option is Better to Defend a DUI Cases in Utah?

Interviewer: What are the advantages of hiring an attorney over a public defender?

You Have to Be Indigent to Qualify for a Public Defender

Phil Wormdahl: To be honest, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I don’t know if I can say, “This is what the advantage is” or “This is the disadvantage to having a public defender.” But first of all, you have to be indigent in order to get a public defender. So a lot of people who have enough money to own a car, pay the insurance, and go out and drink at a place that they would have to drive home from—aren’t going to be considered indigent.

They’re going to have just enough income that they won’t qualify for a public defender, and in that case, then they either need to go it alone—which I wouldn’t advise based on my answer from the last question—or they have to hire an attorney.

So as far as the advantage is to having private counsel are actually several: The first thing I want to say is that there are good lawyers for DUI defense and there are not so good lawyers for DUI defense. The law is like any other profession. There are vastly different kinds of people. Now ostensibly anybody who is practicing law and has a license in good standing is going to be competent to handle a defense in DUI.

Should You Be Selective When Considering Retaining an Attorney to Defend a DUI Charge?

But competence, you need to remember is a minimum threshold. So you need to ask yourself:Do I want somebody who’s competent to handle my defense or do I want somebody who is particularly suited to handle my defense? And that’s one big difference between appointed counsel and private counsel. Appointed counsel is typically going to be doing all different kinds of cases. They may just not do as many DUI cases as a private attorney who mainly handles DUI.

But again it’s important to remember like in any other aspect of life – there’s going to be people who are really good at what they do and people who are not as good at what they do. So I have many good friends and colleagues who work for the public defender’s office, and they are great attorneys. And I’ve actually had people come to me for consultations and say, “I currently have a public defender and I’m feeling really nervous about it and I want to talk to you about hiring you.” And I’ll say, “Well who’s your lawyer?” And they’ll say it’s so and so. And I’ve told them before, I know that attorney, and I know them to be a capable attorney and a good attorney, and you’re in good hands. And really, honestly, you don’t need to hire me. You’ve got a good attorney.

As in Any Industry, There Are Good Attorneys and There Are Ones That Are Less Qualified

So there are good public defenders, and I’m sure there are some public defenders that aren’t good attorneys. But that’s same as in the private bar—there are some great private attorneys. And there are private attorneys that just simply aren’t as good. So it’s not as simple as just saying, you know, private attorneys are better or public defender attorneys are better, or one’s worse, or one’s not—it really comes down to the attorney on the whole.

Private Attorneys Do Have More Time and Resources to Devote to Each Case

The one big difference though, between the public defender’s office and retaining the private attorney is the amount of time and resources that each attorney has. I’ve already disclosed that at any given time I may have about 30 cases pending—all at different phases of litigation. A public defender who is handling DUI calendars is frankly going to have significantly more cases than the 30 I mentioned earlier.

I’ve never worked at a public defender’s office so I can only speak from casual conversation with public defenders. But my understanding is that it’s not strange for a public defender to have a hundred or more clients at any given time. And if you have a hundred or more clients at any given time, you simply just do not have the number of hours in a day to spend enough time on a case. You would not be able to match the amount of time that I would spend on a case. I mean you just simply couldn’t.

So that is one benefit in terms of just the amount of time that I have to dedicate to any particular client’s case is generally going to be more than the public defender has to spend on their cases. This is because of the workload.

A Matter of Time: It Is Important That Counsel Have Enough Time to Answer All Questions the Client Has and Fully Apprise Them of How the Case Is Proceeding

Because of the amount of hours in the day and the number of clients that they have, they simply don’t have time to dedicate not just to the case and understanding the facts, and litigating the legal aspects of it, but they just don’t have the time to spend it with the client. And as much as the outcome matters in litigating the case competently and properly, matters, and is probably the most important thing—is making sure that the person who is accused has access to the attorney.

They must have sufficient access that they know what’s going on and they can get their questions answered. They feel confident or they feel comfortable with what the attorney is doing because it’s been explained to them in a way they can understand. The client needs to have enough of the attorney’s time to really believe and understand that the attorney understands their case and, understands their circumstance, and understands the law in a way that they can take care of the matter. And I think that’s really something that a private attorney can give in a way that the public defender can’t.

Access to the Attorney: Your First Court Appearance May Be the First Time You Meet with a Public Defender

You may go to court for the first time having never met your public defender. And again that doesn’t mean that they’re not prepared to litigate your case, I’m sure that most of them are prepared to litigate your case. But you’re probably terrified—and part of what an attorney’s job is has to be to make sure that you’re not terrified. Sometimes the attorney is referred to as a counselor. And I take that designation very seriously and when I think about that, it’s not only my job to give you legal advice or to litigate your case, or to make arguments on your behalf; but it’s to counsel you to make sure that this experience doesn’t have to take a more significant toll on your life and your happiness, and your well-being. That is absolutely necessary.

The one thing that a public defender just simply cannot parallel like a private attorney can is just the amount of time that I have to dedicate to a case and the amount of time I have to explain things to a client.