Monday, March 14, 2005

Becoming a PD

It's been so long that I've posted, but also a long time since I responded to any emails, for which I apologize.

Writer ambimb was curious about various aspects of becoming a public defender, and mostly interested in the nuts and bolts. As a 2nd year law student he was wondering if it was better to try and clerk with the same public defender's office for a 2nd summer, or go to a different one. The one he went to the previous summer would allow him, this summer, to actually appear in court as a law clerk.

I can't say which office is better, the devil is clearly in the details. But, one of the most important questions is whether or not he wants to work permanently in that one. The connections you make as a law clerk are invaluable in securing permanent employment. If you make a good impression as a clerk, the chance of getting hired increase exponentially. Many offices get thousands of applications for just a few open spots, the people best suited to getting those few jobs are those who have worked with the offices that would hire them.

I clerked for the office that I hooked up with for part of the school year. In that time I was able to show my interest, abilities (even though we couldn't appear in court), and interest in becoming a PD. As a result, when I passed the bar, I was able to get hired fairly quickly. Then again, one of the people with whom I clerked, who actually clerked much longer than I did, took over a year to get hired. Perhaps that is because he clerked at the same office he eventually wanted to work at - he was a pain in the butt and grated on people, and as a result, he was lucky to have been hired in the first place. Other people took varying amounts of time to get hired on, if at all, based in part on their performance as law clerks.

So, if you want to eventually hook up with an office, any office, plant some roots there and make them like you, it's your best chance.

I don't know if I ever mentioned this before, but when clerking for the PDs office, I wasn't paid. It didn't matter, I got used to doing various free externships for the experience in law school, and actually enjoyed many of them quite a bit. I really loved the PD's office the most, though. I remember about half way through my externship when I began to think of myself as an actual PD, not just a clerk hoping to catch on there some day. Once I started, I felt like I was doing work I had always been meant to do, almost as if everything I'd ever done that I enjoyed was coming together into this job. Then, when I got hired 9 months later, I still loved it just as much (hell, I still love it just as much, it's a great job). However, I'll never forget getting my first paycheck as a regular employee, I opened it, looked at it for a moment, and thought "damn! They're actually paying me for this? That's incredible, what a great scam I've found!" I still look at my paycheck twice a month and think to myself "they really pay me this much money for doing this stuff? It just doesn't seem fair."

I'd have to say, if you ever get into a situation like that in life, don't ever leave it. If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life.


SSM said...

Some state PD's do pay their clerks: Missouri's, for one (I work as an asst. PD in a two-attorney - hopefully, three-attorney - office in southwestern Mo.). The Missouri PD system does want to look to its clerks as, ultimately, early hires, and - as early hires - will extend contracts to them for temporary employment pending bar results. One does not have to work at the office previously clerked for, but working at that office does give you a feel for the office climate and court politics.

Not a bad organization to work for: MSPD will pay for bar fees and CLE and for Westlaw access. Great entry level training. Plus, you can contact anyone else in the entire PD system statewide with questions. I, for one, bother the Appellate PDs quite a bit, and they don't seem to mind.

One more thing: Missouri is one of a relatively small number of states that have centralized public defender systems - within the state judiciary department/supreme court - that are reasonably well-funded (even if staffing levels don't fully meet the need for services). Many states still have contract offices for PDs, and some states (Tennessee, for instance) have elected district PDs.

Indiana Public Defender said...

Anyone considering becoming a PD should read: "Too Much Heart and Not Enough Heat: The Short Life and Fractured Ego of the Empathic, Heroic Public Defender" 37 UC Davis L. Rev. 1203 (2004)

Anonymous said...

I think it is ridiculous that a agency which is essentially part of the government is relying on volunteer labor. I realize this goes on all the time, but treating law students like they have no talent and are without value only leads to abuse.

I will not allow a member of my family to work for free. I disowned one cousin for doing this.

And, you know what? They still get hired by the same places, even though they didn’t whore themselves out for free. In fact, I think that people actually look down upon people who worked for free, and are less likely to hire them. Maybe your office is different, but these unspoken “we will see if we want to hire you” are simply abusing people. You would probably be screeching if we did this to migrant farm workers, but for some reason, when it is white collar lawyers, it is okay not to pay them.

PD Dude said...

Anon - Unfortunately, at least to our office, law clerks don't have all that much value. I don't have a great problem with people interning for free, and in our office at least, they are not relied upon for any particularly valuable work. This means that the experience they get is not all that great - they get to see the inner workings of the office and the court system, but that's about it. However, they get to make invaluable connections.

I guess I have a bigger problem with spoiling so many law students with monster salaries as law clerks of big firms while they go out and party every day, getting feted like heads of state. Why not have an apprentice period where you have to give a little something to the profession you're seeking to join to show that you're worthy and really interested? Future doctors work 80-100 hours a week for a pittance when in their residency, there's been peeps about it more recently, but most agree that it makes better doctors. I prefer that over the manner in which big firms spoil their prospective hires.

I'm sorry to be disowned by you :)

Anonymous said...

If clerks are not of much use in your office, then don’t ask the to work for less than an illegal Mexican farmworker works for. Basically, according to your description, these people 1) work for free; and 2) have little or no useful skills. Instead, they get to make friends (or, as you say “connections”) with lawyers, who may or may not look favorably upon them at some later date. Of course, if the clerk lacks social skills they wasted their time and money, since they basically have to PAY to work for you.

What is wrong with a firm spoiling a law student? If they want to spoil a law student, they are welcome to. I think it is silly, if I had a choice between vague promises of future employment in lieu of compensation, or banquets and money in addition to compensation, I guess I would have to take the latter. When I first started out (at BIGLAW) I worked quite a few hours. I don’t know if it was more than medical residents or not, but I was definitely spent. I did learn a lot, and I was paid for it. At least everything in that situation was on the table and people went about it honestly.

Anonymous said...

Jax Fl PD here, we don't pay our clerks/interns as all the law schools here have externship programs that allow them to obtain the internship and then get school credit for working. Its a good deal for us and the student as they get real world experience and they can still "clerk" for a firm in the summer if they want. Our office pays for all bar dues, CLE courses and an annual PD Conference in Key West. We also have 100% of our health care costs paid for in addition to a state retirement program and private 401k if one chooses to participate. Overall, we don't get the big bucks, but we do get a lot of bennies and job satisfaction.

ambimb said...

I'm late to this party but I want to thank PD Dude for the great response to my questions, and everyone else for the insight they've offered into employment situations at different PD offices. the MO and FL PD systems sound pretty cool, but, well, they're in MO and FL. ;-) But seriously, I'm hoping to be further north and west, generally. I've heard CO has a statewide system like you describe for MO. I bet somewhere I could find a central database of information on the different PD systems in each state -- does anyone know where something like that would be?

About paying law clerks: I've amost never worked for free, although since starting law school, I've rarely recieved any monetary compensation. To suggest that accepting alternative forms of compensation in exchange for your time and effort as a law clerk is "whoring" -- well, I appreciate the implicit desire to protect the rights of workers, but such a sentiment also suggests an excessive fixation on the almighty dollar. That's where your comparison to Mexican farmworkers breaks down -- what can those workers get from their farmwork besides a paycheck? Nothing. They're not learning new skills or making connections to advance their careers or enrich their lives, so money becomes all-important -- there's simply no other way to compensate them for their work. If the same can be said about a legal internship, you need to find another internship, because I guarantee you that money is about the least valuable form of compensation available from a good legal internship.

Sure, I would love to get paid for my internships, but I value the experience I've gained far more than I value money. If I had to choose whether to get paid or get great experience doing something I really care about, I'd choose the experience any day. In a way, that's exactly the choice I've made in rejecting the BigLaw you confess to being a part of. If I can understand your desire for dollars w/out calling you a whore, perhaps you could try and understand my desire for other values w/out calling me one?

Mike said...

I recently finished my undergraduate degree and I am now looking at different law schools. I fairly certain I want to work in the Jacksonville, Fl PD’s office one day, but the law school I’m most interested right now is the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the school for me. How far fetched of plan is to go to law school there then trying to move back here for work? Is there anything I could do to increase my chances of being able to come back and work in Jacksonville, PD’s office?