The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees a person accused of a crime the right to counsel. Of course, not everyone who is accused of a crime is able to afford the services of an attorney. Accordingly, the court system is able to appoint a government-paid attorney—called a public defender—in such an instance. In order to qualify for the services of a public defender, an accused must meet certain indigency requirements. Once an accused has convinced the court of his inability to afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender.
An appointed attorney, or public defender, acts in a similar manner to a privately retained attorney. Often, public defenders are experienced attorneys who are seasoned veterans of criminal law. However, there are many public defenders who are fresh out of law school. Unlike retaining a private attorney, you have no choice in selecting the qualifications of the public defender who is appointed to your case. Additionally, public defenders often have huge caseloads and therefore you will not have as much access to or contact with a public defender as you would if you retained a private attorney. Public defenders often have limited resources and might be unable to investigate your case to the same extent as a private attorney. Finally, public defenders are limited to practicing solely criminal law. In that regard, a public defender will be unable to assist you with any civil law aspects of your case.
Having an appointed public defender can also be advantageous. First and foremost, public defenders spend a good deal of their time in court. Therefore, they are well-versed in the idiosyncrasies of the key players in a criminal case—the judges, the prosecutors and the police officers. Additionally, public defenders often develop certain specialties in criminal law and are therefore exceptionally qualified on the available trial strategies and defenses of those crimes. In that regard, public defenders are often well-suited to negotiate plea bargains with the prosecution given their close working relationship.