Government Attorneys Better Than Private?

I was surprised when I read Michael O’Hare‘s report that, “A certain Radha Iyengar finds salaried government lawyers in public defender offices (lazy timeserving bureaucrats) creating more value per dollar than private lawyers (honest hardworking competent professionals) on contract. They cost less per case and get their clients shorter sentences.” While I don’t think bureaucrats, especially professionals like lawyers, are generally lazy or incompetent, it would seem reasonable that their private counterparts would have more incentive to work harder.

It turns out that Iyengar doesn’t quite find what O’Hare says he found. Instead, he found something much narrower and not at all counterintuitive: experienced public defenders with relationships with prosecutors are better at their jobs than the sort of attorneys who put themselves on the court appointment list. The latter “tend to be quite young, tend to be from small practices and also they tend to be from lower-ranked law schools. They have a smaller client base and fewer interactions with prosecutors.”

That’s not surprising. Court-appointed attorneys tend to be poorly compensated compared to those whose clients pay directly. Unfortunately, according to the piece, 98% of all federal criminal cases involve indigent defenders, roughly half of whom get a public defender with the other half getting a court-appointed private attorney.

They way to test O’Hare’s theory would be to compare the outcomes of the 2% who can afford to hire their own attorneys to the 98% who are at the mercy of the state.

UPDATE: Jeralyn Merritt says Iyengar’s study is bunk.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Law and the Courts,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    I also think a lot of it would depend on the charges and whether you were looking for a deal or a finding of not guilty at trial.

    I have no doubt that a court appointed attorney could work out a better deal for a guilty client, but going to trial is a totally different matter.

    I can also say that when I worked in family court-the absolute worst attorney to have was the public defender’s office attorney (she handled all the juvenile court appointed cases, except where there were conflicts). She was awful-but that is one anecdotal experience-I wouldn’t go so far as to say every public defender is awful.