Progressing from law school to J.D. to public defender, training is the key

Law school may teach us to "think like a lawyer," but it seldom prepares an attorney to defend a living breathing client who is charged with a specific criminal act where the prosecution will take place in a specific jurisdiction that has its own unique policies and procedures.  Instead, lawyers learn how to actually represent clients when they take their first job.  They get this practical education either through trial by fire (the worst possible way for clients), through being taken under the wing of a more experienced defender (a better situation), or through a formal training program provided by the public defense system in which they work (called for by national standards as necessary to provide constitutionally effective representation).

Recent law school graduates need training in basic skills, such as how to interview a client, how to conduct an independent investigation of the facts of a case, how to navigate the workings of the justice system including jails and probation departments and court administration, how to prepare and file a pleading, how to actually conduct a trial.  Experienced attorneys who enter public defense from other areas of the law, such as real estate or personal injury, are not familiar with the law and procedures of criminal defense, and so they must be taught.  And even experienced criminal defense attorneys must get new education every day in the complex areas that affect criminal defense, such as forensic sciences, collateral consequences of convictions, eye witness identification procedures, the ability to recognize and address signs of mental illness or substance abuse in a client, understanding the neurological and behavioral development of adolescents, and navigating the complex legal holdings of courts in areas like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and abstention doctrines and fair cross-section claims.  Defending a person charged with a crime is not for the faint of heart or the weary, because it requires constant learning.

Every attorney in a public defense system (and investigator, and social worker, and paralegal) must receive the on-going training, development, and education that is necessary for them to be able to effectively represent their clients.  The system in which they work must provide this ever-continuing education as part of ensuring the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment.  The American Bar Assocation Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System explain this succinctly in Principles 6 and 9.

Principle 6:  Defense counsel's ability, training, and experience match the complexity of the case.

Principle 9:  Defense counsel is provided with and required to attend continuing legal education.

So how can a public defense system or agency go about providing this critical education to its attorneys and staff?  The NLADA Defender Training and Development Standards (1997) outline the necessary components of a training program to be provided by a public defense system.  As those standards explain, the first step is for the agency to designate a person who has training as a specific job duty.  In a large agency, one person may have the title of Training Director and take on all responsibility for providing education continually to everyone within the system.  But even in a small public defense system made up of a loose confederation of solo practitioners, it is critical that one of these attorneys take responsibility for ensuring that everyone receives the on-going education they must have to adequately represent their clients.  Whether training in your system is overseen by a Training Director or by a lawyer who has accepted those responsibilities, that person does not have to re-invent the wheel.  Instead, they can reach out to others throughout the country who are experienced in providing training for public defenders.

One way to do this is through the Defender Trainer Section of NLADA.  This section is chaired by long-time defender trainers Phyllis Subin and Jeff Sherr and aided by Karl Doss who heads up NLADA's Training and Professional Development.  Over 150 people who provide defender training programs in jurisdictions large and small actively participate in sharing training models and materials and answering thorny training questions.

With budget cutbacks everywhere, many public defense systems are finding it impossible to send someone from their jurisdiction to attend a program in another state or even another county.  The Defender Trainer Section brings the information you need to you, on your computer, whenever it is most convenient for you to access it, by taking advantage of the newest in internet tools.  The NLADA Trainers group, using, provides contact information for defender trainers nationwide, a calendar of upcoming trainer and training events, model training programs and training materials, and more.  The Public Defender Trainers page, using, provides webinars on many topics and a forum to ask questions and discuss training issues.  Both of these online resources are simple to use, so don't be afraid even if you grew up at a time when IBM punch cards were the latest in computer technology.  To gain access to these tools, just email Jeff Sherr and he will gently guide you through the process.  To learn more about the Defender Trainer Section, visit their webpage home.

If you are looking for ways to make the most of today's technology in your own agency's training program, read "Continuing a Tradition of Training Innovation Through New Internet Technologies."  Another great resource to explain to budget administrators and policy makers why you must have a functional training program is "Litigation and Training Performance Standards: Making Them Work for Clients and You!"  This article explains the national standards that describe what constitutionally effective public defense agencies and attorneys must do to fulfill their right to counsel obligations.  To meet these standards, every agency must have an on-going training program that is constantly educating and re-educating all public defense service providers.


Author/Organization: Phyllis E. Mann
Publication Date: 03/31/2010