Public defender offices in the US, which exist at both the state and federal level, are structured much the same way as private litigation firms. There are job opportunities for attorneys, administrative support staff, and investigators. Many public defender offices also hire undergraduate and law students for paying jobs, clerkships, and internships. Larger metropolitan offices may have their own libraries and information technology staff.
Since the landmark 1963 US Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright, all states in the US and the federal government have been required to provide legal representation to indigent persons charged with a criminal offense. This includes traffic offenses if there is a possibility of any type of incarceration. State public defender offices are organized at the county level, and there is a public defender for each county within a state. Federal defender offices are organized around the jurisdiction of the federal district courts, which may encompass several counties within a state.
There are many public defender jobs for attorneys. Depending on the size of the county, a public defender office may be staffed with a single attorney to scores of lawyers assigned to different divisions and specialized tasks. Most office divisions are organized around the three principal areas of criminal law, which are traffic, misdemeanor, and felony cases. In metropolitan areas, there may be subdivisions within the larger divisions. For instance, in major cities such as Chicago or New York, there may be assistant public defenders in the felony division who handle only sexual assault, arson, or murder cases.
Most public defender offices represent a high number of people. Attorneys are generally assigned to a specific courtroom and spend the greater part of the day there. Public defender jobs for investigators play an important role in most offices. Often the only initial information available to the lawyer handling the case is from police reports. It is the job of the investigator to find and interview possible witnesses and gather other information for the attorney.
As with other law offices, there are public defender jobs for legal secretaries, paralegals, receptionists and other support staff. Many students studying the law or criminal justice work part time or in the summers in public defender offices. Sometimes they may be paid law clerks doing legal research for the attorneys or organizing information to help prepare for a trial. Some students also work as interns and receive course credits toward their degrees. Internships can often lead to permanent employment in the future.
In many offices, particularly larger ones, there are also public defender jobs for those interested in library services and information technology systems. The legal profession has its own specialized software for legal research and electronic record keeping. Many public defender libraries now rely heavily on online research programs that supplement published hardcover materials. Much of the information in case files, including privileged client information, research, and trial preparation is also stored electronically.