“Fighting the Good Fight”: Why Do Public Defenders Remain on the Job?

Published date01 July 2020
Date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(6) 939 –961
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403419862317
“Fighting the Good Fight”:
Why Do Public Defenders
Remain on the Job?
Valerio Baćak1, Sarah E. Lageson1,
and Kathleen Powell1
In this article, we ask why public defenders remain on the job despite a number
of unique and testing work-related challenges. To answer this question, we analyze
original data collected through 87 semistructured interviews with public defenders
from government, nonprofit, and appointed counsel systems across the United
States. Participants explicated a set of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations salient
to their decision to remain in public defense: interacting with clients, defending
the Constitution, fighting social inequality, pursuing personal values, appreciating
camaraderie with colleagues, and earning public sector benefits. We discuss how our
findings relate to prior research, identify directions for future studies, and tentatively
engage policy implications.
public defenders, work motivations, indigent defense
A fair criminal justice system cannot exist without public defenders, the attorneys
charged with providing legal defense for individuals accused of breaking the law who
cannot afford their own attorney. Yet they receive limited material and political sup-
port. Public defenders tend to earn less than their peers in private law firms, often
manage very high caseloads, and have limited access to important resources, such as
1Rutgers University–Newark, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Valerio Baćak, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University–Newark, 123 Washington Street, Newark,
NJ 07102-3094, USA.
Email: valerio.bacak@rutgers.edu
862317CJPXXX10.1177/0887403419862317Criminal Justice Policy ReviewBaćak et al.
940 Criminal Justice Policy Review 31(6)
investigators, translators, and social workers (Farole & Langton, 2010). Even public
defenders with adequate salaries and sufficient resources infrequently have little time
to prepare for court appearances and trials. Together, these factors can make the work
of public defenders especially challenging. For many, remaining on the job can be a
difficult choice—despite the value they see in their role as guardians of justice in what
is often considered an unjust legal system.
The challenges that public defenders face constitute only half of the story, as many
choose to become—and remain—public defenders. Despite adversities, being a public
defender entails meaningful work that helps disadvantaged populations, fosters col-
laboration with like-minded colleagues, and can provide relatively generous public
sector benefits. These aspects of the profession constitute motivators for initial entry
into public defense, but it is less clear how they affect career longevity. Evidence sug-
gests the importance of attorneys’ professional experience for the delivery of justice.
Studies of prosecutors indicate that tenure is positively associated with several output
metrics, including conviction rates and sentence lengths (Boylan, 2004). Similarly,
public defenders’ experience levels can benefit clients in the form of improved plea
bargaining and reduced time in prison (Abrams & Yoon, 2007; Anderson & Heaton,
In light of the findings from the studies that point to tenure as vital for the quality
of legal representation, in this article we examine why public defenders remain on the
job. We draw on original semistructured interviews with 87 public defenders across
the United States. The sample is mostly comprised of salaried government defenders,
as well as nonprofit and contract attorneys. Although participants expressed chal-
lenges associated with their work, we focus on the factors that drive their decision to
remain on the job. To frame our analysis of why public defenders remain in this pro-
fession, we build on the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in
social psychology. We start by laying out the usual motives for why people become
attorneys—and public defenders—in the first place.
Why Become a Public Defender?
Research on law students and lawyers reveals several co-occurring motivations for
entering the legal profession, such as desires for occupational and social prestige,
intellectual stimulation, and material benefits. Altruistic desires—such as helping oth-
ers and improving society—are less commonly expressed as the prime motivations for
lawyering (Daicoff, 1996).
Within these general motives, there are unique factors that shape the pursuit of
work in public defense, a specialization often perceived as less prestigious and legiti-
mate by a public skeptical of the value of defending potentially guilty people (Babcock,
1983; Laumann & Heinz, 1977). Previous research and legal commentary suggest
several rationales for becoming a public defender, including preserving the adversarial
process, protecting civil liberties, participating in the search for truth, working toward

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