Private Attorney vs Public Defender: Is it Worth the Money?


If you are facing criminal charges, one of the main stresses will be financial.

An arrest may mean the loss of income from missed work. You might even lose your job if jail time is prolonged. You will also need to weigh the cost of hiring a private attorney versus utilizing the services of a public defender. These are not easy decisions, but they can make a substantial difference in the outcome of your case.

Is a private attorney worth the money?

Yes, absolutely. There are many capable, intelligent and hard-working public defenders. However, hiring your own lawyer has many benefits:

  • A private lawyer works behind the scenes prior to arrest. Public defenders only receive their cases after a person has been charged. This can put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. If a defendant is being pushed through the system without counsel, they may be missing out on opportunities to lessen the severity of their case. A private attorney can be working prior to charges being filed: contesting search warrants, compiling exculpatory evidence and providing information to the prosecutor that may reduce the charge.
  • A public defender is usually overworked. They have very large case loads. A public defender can easily be overwhelmed by the volume of work.  They are simply unable to devote the amount of time necessary on any one individual case. A private attorney can set aside the time necessary to review all the important evidence/documents, conduct interviews, track down information, and meet with you one-on-one.
  • A public defender doesn’t have the same level of resources available to fight the case. A proper defense costs money – not just when it comes to paying for legal advice. Your case may require research, testing, and defense preparation that the state will not always provide. For example, a private attorney can arrange for a polygraph on a critical issue. If the client passes the polygraph, this information can be provided to law enforcement or the prosecuting attorney – which may mitigate the charges.
  • A private attorney can help arrange bail and/or the conditions of arrest. If you wait for a public defender to be appointed, you may miss out on the opportunity to work out a less damaging scenario when it comes to your arrest/bail. A private attorney can work with the prosecutor before charges are filed to arrange how the arrest will be made (for example, turning yourself in on an agreed date/time versus being hauled away in front of coworkers at your place of employment) and over the amount of bail. The amount of bail can make an enormous difference on how the case will move forward. If bail can be greatly reduced by agreements prior to the charges being filed (for example, if bail is $10,000 rather than $150,000), it can make it much easier for the accused to work with a bail bonding company. This can mean being released from jail in a day as opposed to weeks trying to raise the money. For more information about the bail process, click here.

Have further questions?

If you have a criminal matter and would like to consult with a lawyer who will begin working on your case right away, contact Jan Olson at Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC. You can reach Jan by calling (206) 682-0565 or by e-mail at