There's a new study out which compared how defendants did in the federal system over a several year period when represented by federal public defenders and by court appointed (or "Panel") lawyers.
Now, no disrespect to any of my panel brethren here, but the study reached the conclusion that public defenders are better. I have always agreed with that.
A caveat - most panel lawyers are pretty good, and most PDs are pretty good. I just happen to think - where I practice (I can't comment on any other place) - PDs are better. This could obviously be totally different in different parts of California, or of the country.
Here where I work, PDs get paid well, so they tend to stay with the office for a long time without leaving to go private. For this reason, we have a lot of experienced lawyers to learn from. These are people that we can lean on, watch in trial, and talk to daily about our cases. Because we have a bigger office than any private lawyer can have, we always have many to learn from.
Any case that I have, chances are someone else in my office has done something similar and has motions on the subject, strategies for dealing with it, and probably more experience than the prosecutor doing the same case. Furthermore, in dealing the case, we know what these cases have gone for the in past, and have a stronger basis to get that kind of a deal when we go to settle the case in our situation. Knowledge and experience are power.
That being said, there are plenty of great panel lawyers out there. Interestingly, in my experience, most of the best of them came from either the DA or PDs office (more so from the PD's office - no apologies there), where they had the volume of cases and experience to deal with huge numbers of cases.
At a certain point, there is almost no substitute for experience. Obviously, raw talent makes a difference, but, just like in sports, raw talent alone can't do it for you. You ever wonder how professional baseball players can backhand a screaming ground ball and casually throw out a runner from 3rd base like it's nothing? With years of rote practice. This is how us Public Defenders can pick up a murder case, look it over, and have a pretty good idea how they are going to handle it and how it is going to turn out after just a few minutes of reading the file. Baseball players practice for hours a day, every day, to perfect every aspect of their game. PDs do the same thing, handling case after case, and listening to their co-workers talk about cases, until they know these cases backwards and forwards.
Defendants complain that us PDs are in bed with prosecutors because we work with them every day (the first part isn't true, the second part is), these close working relationships appear to make a positive difference according to the study. This is cited as one reason that PDs get better deals for their clients, and have a slightly lower conviction rate at trial.
All in all, it's nice to see study of how us PDs aren't those worthless dump trucks so typically depicted by our clients, but more importantly, in popular culture nationwide. We are good, effective and experienced criminal defense lawyers that any person should be confident in trusting their lives to.