A state official who hires lawyers says more law school graduates are intentionally aiming to take jobs defending clients who cannot afford their own attorney.
“I hear stories from the past where sometimes they’d only have one applicant for a position and, even if they weren’t particularly pleased with that person, they’d be stuck with them, but that has certainly not been the case since I’ve been public defender,” says Adam Gregg, who has been the State Public Defender for the past two years.
Gregg overseeing a staff with about 150 attorneys. He says many law school graduates were unable to find work after the last recession.
“We have really outstanding applicants,” Gregg says. “I can’t think of an opening that we’ve had in recent times where we haven’t had multiple people that we would have liked to extend the offer to.”
That hasn’t always been the case. Law school grads have traditionally sought higher paying jobs, but Gregg says in addition to the recession, there are a growing number of aspiring attorneys who train specifically to represent poor clients.
“From the legal clinic experiences that they take to the elective courses that they take, you can see that they have built themselves towards that…so it gets hard to pick from among numerous people of that same profile,” Gregg says. “What has often happened is we’ll have someone who has applied for one position, maybe came in second or third place in that, but then they’re number one at the next opening…The other thing I like about that caliber of applicant is they’re willing to do it anywhere.”
Gregg recently had an applicant who lost out on a public defender job based in Ottumwa, but reapplied and got a similar job in Waterloo. Some new public defenders can “burn out quickly,” according to Gregg.
“It is a challenging job with a high caseload and sometimes they’re not well appreciated,” Gregg says. “…But those who really understand what the job is going to be like and maybe have had some of that experience know what they’re getting in to and tend to be ‘true believers’ in doing that work and we’ll have them stick around for a very long time.”
Anyone accused of a crime that can result in jail time if they’re convicted is entitled to a lawyer. If they cannot afford an attorney, the state has a group of attorneys on staff who work on those cases. The state also pays some local attorneys to represent indigent clients in criminal court.