First of all, know that there is a difference between lawyers and attorneys. Anyone who finished law school can be referred to a lawyer, even if they haven’t passed the bar. On the other hand, those who have passed the bar are called attorneys but can be called as lawyers as well.
Lawyers are limited in what they can do. For starters, they cannot represent anyone in court or engage in any legal work.
There are multiple specializations in law. A few of them are business, constitutional, environmental, first amendment, healthcare, patent, and criminal law.
Criminal law deals with prosecuting and defending those people who have committed, or are accused of committing, a crime. Mostly, you can classify criminal lawyers into three broad categories: public attorneys, private attorneys, and prosecutors.
In any case, it’s important to understand which type of criminal lawyer is which in order to determine what kind of lawyer you need for your case.
The most common type of lawyer you will encounter are public attorneys. Almost every country in the world has a public defender system. It means that every person facing charges, especially ones who can’t afford to hire a lawyer, has the right to an attorney provided by the government.
Public attorneys have a bad reputation of being incompetent and unmotivated. It’s true that their performance compared to lawyers from private firms are often less stellar. However, it’s not that they are inept. The main reason is that they often have multiple clients to handle. Also, they are not allowed to turn down a client — not to mention that they are largely underpaid by the state.
These are private lawyers that are hired by the government to satisfy the increasing demand for public lawyers. The government pays their fees and provides them to citizens who don’t have an assigned lawyer yet. In some cases, they are provided when the public lawyer assigned needs assistance.
The state or jurisdiction you live in may or may not supplement their public lawyers with panel attorneys.
Do not confuse public lawyers and US attorneys. Public lawyers in the United States work on local- and state-level cases, while US attorneys generally work on federal cases. Because they work on federal cases, US attorneys primarily deal with criminals who have broken federal laws.
These attorneys are often referred to as prosecutors and they mostly handle criminal cases. Their role ranges from processing accusations to going to trial. Most district attorneys are provided with assistant attorneys to help with information gathering and other tasks requiring legwork.
It’s heartbreaking to admit that getting private attorneys instead of public lawyers is the better choice for criminal cases. The biggest difference between private attorneys and public lawyers is time. Private criminal lawyers on average have two to three active cases per month, though the number of cases a private lawyer accepts may vary wildly depending on their specialization. The American Bar Association has stated that public defenders should not handle more than 150 cases per year; that equates to 12.5 active cases per month. Even so, some public defenders have almost 200 cases a year. So, if you want to hire an attorney who will really focus his time and effort on you, it’s better to get a private one.