Cultural Revolution: Transforming the Public Defender’s Office


Public defenders everywhere are starting to reassess the most fundamental questions of what it means to provide effective representation for their clients. Frustrated by the limitations traditionally imposed by government funders seeking to satisfy minimal constitutional requirements, public defenders are asking themselves if there is more we can do for the clients and communities we represent. By changing the way we see our clients, their communities, and ourselves, we can fundamentally alter the relationship among the three for the benefit of all.

Even talking about changing what public defenders do and how they define their roles is liable to terrify most managers. Public defender culture is so ingrained and traditional that calls for cultural change are usually met with responses such as, “my lawyers won’t do that”; “my funders won’t let me do that”; “my community isn’t interested in that”; or “it sounds great in practice, but it’ll never work for me.”

This article is designed to do two things: to provoke a discussion about the most basic values of the public defender culture in order to create a desire to reevaluate them; and to provide a set of concrete suggestions by which public defender managers can move an office from the “traditional model” to a more “holistic” one.

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