Attorney–Client Communication in Public Defense: A Qualitative Examination

Published date01 July 2020
Date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(6) 908 –938
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403419861672
Communication in Public
Defense: A Qualitative
Janet Moore1, Vicki L. Plano Clark1,
Lori A. Foote1, and Jacinda K. Dariotis1
This article presents a qualitative research approach to exploring attorney–client
communication in an urban public defense system. The study drew upon procedural
justice theory (PJT), which emphasizes relationships between satisfaction with system
procedures and compliance with system demands. Interpretive analysis of interview
data from 22 public defense clients revealed four major themes. PJT accounted well
for three themes of communication time, type, and content, highlighting relationships
between prompt, iterative, complete communication, and client satisfaction. The
fourth theme involved clients exercising agency, often due to dissatisfaction with
attorney communication. This theme was better accommodated by legal consciousness
theory, which emphasizes that diverse experiences with law include manipulation and
opposition alongside compliance. Implications for policy and research are discussed.
public defense, communication, client perspectives, qualitative research, procedural
justice theory, legal consciousness theory
Attorney–client communication is a major concern for public defenders and clients
alike, but there is a dearth of research focused specifically on this topic (Moore,
Yaroshefsky, & Davies, 2018). This knowledge gap is problematic. Attorney–client
communication is a critical component of legal representation (American Bar
Association [ABA], 2004; Missouri v. Frye, 2012). A turn toward client-centered and
1University of Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Janet Moore, College of Law, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH 45221-0040, USA.
861672CJPXXX10.1177/0887403419861672Criminal Justice Policy ReviewMoore et al.
Moore et al. 909
holistic practices has encouraged attorneys to involve clients more actively in their
representation and to attend more fully to client needs (Anderson, Buenaventura, &
Heaton, 2019; Brooks & Madden, 2010). These developments have increased the
importance of understanding communication as an aspect of attorney education, per-
formance evaluation, and workload-resource policies (Barton, Cunningham, Jones, &
Maharg, 2006; Carmichael, Clemens, Caspers, Marchbanks, & Wood, 2015; Cochran,
DiPippa, & Peters, 2014; Felstiner, 1997).
Moreover, a distinctive set of problems undermines attorney–client communication
in public defense. Government-paid attorneys have long been seen as lacking the
resources, commitment, and independence of privately retained counsel (Campbell,
Moore, Maier, & Gaffney, 2015; Casper, 1971). This stereotype is not baseless; public
defense is minimally regulated and often underfunded (National Right to Counsel
Committee, The Constitution Project, 2009). Institutional and workload pressures
encourage public defenders to triage cases and obtain quick guilty pleas with little cli-
ent communication, heightening risks that extralegal factors such as race will influ-
ence representation (Cunningham, 1992; Richardson & Goff, 2013; Troccoli, 2002).
Courts exacerbate mistrust by appointing public defense counsel instead of granting
the limited right to choose counsel enjoyed by people who hire lawyers (Moore, 2018).
These problems leave public defenders “shorn of their sharpest edge—their legitimacy
as effective and trusted lawyers,” which “impairs the lines of communication essential
to a proper defense” (Aalberts, Boyt, & Seidman, 2002, p. 544).
Despite reform efforts, these problems are recalcitrant and embedded within other
crises involving poverty, austerity in social service funding, and overincarceration
(Blumberg, 1967; Gonzalez Van Cleve, 2016; Gottschalk, 2015). Thus, they share
characteristics of “wicked problems” in public health and environmental science for
which transdisciplinary research seeks new theoretical frameworks and concrete
solutions (Brown, Harris, & Russell, 2010; Lang et al., 2012). Furthermore, public
defense research needs exploratory studies to refine conceptual definitions, promote
theory development, and improve related tools and measures (Moore & Davies,
Our research team responded by combining expertise in research methodologies,
education, public health, and criminal law and procedure to conduct exploratory
research on attorney–client communication in public defense. Our research purpose
was to increase understanding of client experiences and perceptions regarding com-
munication with their public defense lawyers. We adopted an interpretive qualitative
approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Data from 22 public defense clients revealed new
complexities in client experiences with attorney–client communication that include
the exercise of personal agency, often due to dissatisfaction with the communication.
Legal consciousness theory (LCT; Silbey, 2005) complemented procedural justice
theory (PJT; Campbell et al., 2015) in accounting for these complexities. The results
of this study have implications for research, theory, policy, and practice related to
public defense, and call for increased attention to the potential role of client agency in
efforts to improve attorney training, performance evaluation, workload-resource
ratios, and outcomes at the case and system level.

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