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As stated in the Miranda warnings, if you are arrested you have the right to an attorney, and if you cannot afford one, one will be provided to you. This is a staple of the American justice system.

If you are facing serious charges like drug possession, you have a lot to worry about. How will this affect your family? Your career? You have to decide what kind of lawyer will represent you. 

Your decision may boil down to a public defender vs, private attorney. Which one is the best choice for you?

Here are some facts which may guide you in this highly significant decision. Who you choose may make all the difference in your life going forward.

Public Defenders

1. No Cost

The right to an attorney is codified in the Miranda warnings and subsequent court decisions. It is based on the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. 

Numerous decisions by the Supreme Court over the years have upheld a person’s right to be informed of their right to remain silent, their right to a lawyer (including a public defender), their ability to waive their rights, and that what they say can be used against them in court.

The court will appoint a public defender on your behalf if you cannot afford someone, and you will not be billed for their services. If you cannot make bail, the court will assume you need a public defender and assign one to you for your arraignment. 

Even if you make bail, if you want a public defender you can apply for one by filling out a form and showing that you do not have the means to afford an attorney for yourself.

2. Can Be Highly Qualified 

Public defenders are members of the bar in good standing who conduct court proceedings all day long. 

Often these public servants are highly devoted to their jobs. They understand the critical role they play in the justice system, and they often believe passionately that everyone deserves a lawyer no matter what crime they may be accused of and how much money they have.

Often public defenders are young lawyers who have graduated from leading law schools. They often go on to be successful litigators in the private sector.

3. Overworked and Underpaid 

The most commonly cited problem with public defenders is that they are massively overworked. They may have literally hundreds of cases for which they are responsible.

With a limited number of hours in a day, most public defenders simply do not have the time or resources to give each case the amount of time and attention needed.

There is also a huge pressure for clients to plead guilty. Known in the profession as “meet ’em and plead ’em,” public defenders often meet clients minutes before their hearings and then encourage them to plead guilty. Some estimate that 90-95% of public defender clients end up pleading guilty. 

Because of the intense pressure on the system, it often benefits people facing criminal charges to hire a private attorney whenever possible.

Private Attorneys 

1.  Focused on You

One major advantage of hiring a private attorney if you are facing drug possession or reckless driving charges is that they will be more focused on you and your case.

While all attorneys take an oath to vigorously defend their clients, a private attorney will simply have more time and resources to devote to you. They will have staff and colleagues who can work on your case with them. They may have relationships with the prosecutor and/or judge which may help in negotiations and plea bargaining.

2. May Have Years of Experience 

When you hire an attorney for your criminal case, you can choose someone experienced in the area where you are in trouble. If you are facing charges of possession, you can hire someone who only represents clients like you and who has succeeded in getting plea deals and acquittals.

Young attorneys can be very effective, but often experienced litigators have learned over time the best ways to approach cases. Choosing a private lawyer with years of experience can give you confidence that he or she knows what they are doing because they have done it so many times before.

Seasoned attorneys in private practice also know how to communicate with their clients. They will meet with you to help plan your defense and explain your options. You can call them when you are worried about the outcome and they can explain matters to you.

They will prepare you for depositions or courtroom testimony, including what to wear and what to say. 

4. Negotiable Costs 

Granted, a private attorney is not free. However, if you are facing criminal charges, you have a great deal at stake.

A guilty plea in a drug case may irreparably stain your record, making you ineligible for certain schools or jobs. It may affect your ability to get bank loans. You and your family may suffer the effects long after the sentence is completed. 

Many clients find that the investment in a good private attorney at this critical time was the best money they have ever spent.

Talk to a criminal attorney about their fees. Many good lawyers will work with you to arrange payment plans so you can pay over time. If their fees are simply too high for you,  they may be able to recommend someone who is still good but whose fees may be more in line with what you can afford.

Public Defender vs. Private Attorney: It’s Your Life on the Line

When you are weighing the pros and cons of a public defender vs private attorney, you may be worried about spending money when you have the right to free counsel. However, look at your situation in the broader context.

If you are looking at drug charges, the outcome of this case may have a lasting impact on the rest of your life. Do you want to take the chance of saving a few dollars but risking your future, and even your freedom? 

If you need more information on what to look for in a criminal attorney in Fairfax, VA, check out our blog.

Areas of Practice

  • Criminal Law
  • Traffic Violations
  • Reckless Driving
  • Felonies and Misdemeanors

Bar Admissions

  • Virginia, 1985
  • District of Columbia, 1987
  • U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia, 1985
  • U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, 1987
  • U.S. Court of Appeals 4th Circuit, 1985
  • U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit
  • U.S. Court of Federal Claims


  • University of Virginia School of Law, Charlottesville, Virginia
    • J.D. - 1985
  • Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    • B.A. magna cum laude - 1982
    • Honors: Phi Beta Kappa
    • Major: Economics & Philosophy
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