What to Expect When You’ve Landed a Clerkship with the Public Defender’s Office

What to Expect When You’ve Landed a Clerkship with the Public Defender’s OfficeThis week we welcome back guest writer Raneta Mack to talk about what to expect with a position at the public defender’s office.

If you’re like many students, you entered law school not quite knowing how you might use your law degree and perhaps thinking that you wanted to somehow make a difference. Your first year classes are designed to provide you with a strong legal foundation across a broad area of interests. In many instances, these classes help students discover their passion.

For example, Criminal Law, a required course in most law schools, takes you through the workings of the criminal justice system, focusing on crimes, mental states and defenses. While taking this class, many students realize for the first time that a career as a public defender might fulfill their desire to make a difference while also engaging in very challenging legal work. These students often take a further leap into this area by applying for summer clerkships with public defender offices to see if this is where they’d like to launch their legal career. Once the job offer comes in, there is the usual excitement about a new job opportunity, but there may also be some doubt. Doubt? Read on.

Congratulations on your clerkship with the public defender’s office! As you prepare for your first day on the job, you might be experiencing a mix of emotions. You’re excited for the challenge, but also terrified by lingering doubts as to whether you can represent people who might be guilty of very serious crimes. You’re anxious to get started with this wonderful career opportunity, but you’re also reflecting on the many television shows you watched where the seemingly gullible defense attorney believed in her client’s innocence only to find out the client actually committed the crime.

After all, it’s one thing to read about terrible crimes in a law school casebook and analyze arguments that other lawyers made on behalf of those defendants. It’s another thing for you to possibly sit across from someone who is accused of a heinous crime and then craft arguments on their behalf. You want to make a difference, but what if you help someone who is guilty get out of jail? Are you really cut out for this work?

Here are five ways to make the most of your time in your clerkship with the public defender’s office, and possibly carve out a career as a criminal defense attorney:

1. Understand that your job is to defend and not to judge

In the public defender’s office, you will encounter clients from across the spectrum of the criminal justice system. Some will be first time offenders and others will have lengthy criminal histories. All of them will be counting on you to help them navigate the complex maze of the criminal justice system. Listen carefully as they share facts and concerns with you. Consider how their unique facts and circumstances can help with their defense. Listen to advocate for them, not to judge them.

2. Learn to be creative and open-minded when considering issues and arguments

The cases you will be presented with will sometimes have no obvious or easy answers. Or, more likely, the answer will be obvious, and the case law will be decidedly against your client. Realize that there may not always be a case to support the argument you need to make, and don’t be afraid to make creative arguments (with due consideration to your client’s facts, the relevant law, and your ethical obligations, of course). Many of the cases you read in your criminal law casebook are instances of lawyers being creative and inviting the courts to look at the law in a different way. Hone your creativity skills. Your clients are counting on you.

3. Understand that some people accused of crimes are innocent

The criminal justice system is adversarial. That means there are always at least two sides to every story. You should never read a charging document with the mindset that everything written there is a fact. Police officers and prosecutors make mistakes. Defendants make false confessions. Your job is to advocate on behalf of your client. Prosecutors know they have the burden of proof, and they expect to be challenged. By all means, challenge them.

4. Don’t ever think an argument or a case is impossible

You’re doing criminal defense work. That means some of your clients will be guilty and the prospects of achieving the client’s desired outcome will sometimes seem very bleak. But every criminal defendant deserves an opportunity to put forth a defense. A zealous defense. Make the best argument you can and believe in it. Know that at the end of the day you have done the best work for your client regardless of the outcome.

5. Finally, be compassionate

You’ll need this important character trait while doing criminal defense work. Compassion does not mean that you have to believe your client is innocent. Compassion does not mean that you have to compromise your own values and belief systems for the sake of your work. Compassion simply means that you must believe your client is worthy of a defense, and you must be motivated to put forth your best effort to achieve a fair outcome for your client.

Working in the public defender’s office is a unique opportunity to make a difference in the criminal justice system. But this opportunity brings with it a tremendous responsibility. You probably won’t have cases like those on television where a surprise witness dramatically enters the courtroom at the last minute with evidence that exonerates your client. But you will have a chance to develop your creative lawyering skills while also impacting lives in a very meaningful way.


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About Raneta Mack

Raneta Mack received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, cum laude, and her Juris Doctor degree, cum laude, from the University of Toledo.

Raneta joined the faculty at Creighton University School of Law in 1991, after serving as an associate with the law firm of Davis, Graham & Stubbs in Denver, Colorado, where her practice focused primarily on litigation and bankruptcy law.

At Creighton Law School, Raneta teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, White Collar Crime, Comparative Criminal Procedure, and Remedies. In 2006, she was the recipient of a Fulbright Grant, which gave her the opportunity to travel to Vilnius, Lithuania to deliver lectures on money laundering and its role in global terrorism.

Raneta has published articles on several criminal law related issues including concealed weapons laws, money laundering, bias in the criminal justice system, problems with the Federal Witness Protection Program, and several Miranda related issues. She has also published articles on a variety of computer technology issues including the legal implications of adopting digital signatures, the use of technology to promote alternative dispute resolution, and computer crime statutes in the United States.

Raneta is the author of five books, “A Layperson’s Guide to Criminal Law” (1999), “The Digital Divide: Standing at the Intersection of Race and Technology” (2001), “Equal Justice in the Balance: America’s Legal Responses to the Emerging Terrorist Threat” (with co-author Michael J. Kelly) (2004), “Comparative Criminal Procedure: History, Processes and Case Studies, 2nd edition (2017) and “Criminal Procedure: Cases, Readings and Comparative Perspectives, 3rd edition (2021).

Raneta also provides expert commentary to the local and national media on criminal law, white collar crime and computer technology related issues.

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