You are going to have to face this question if you’ve been arrested in Fort Walton Beach or anywhere in Okaloosa County. For some people, they think they can’t afford a private attorney so they “settle” for a public defender. For some people, the decision is more complicated than that. It becomes a question of value.

Is it worth it?

If you find yourself asking the question of whether it is worth it to hire a private attorney, hopefully this page will give you some guidance.

What are public defenders? Are they actual attorneys?

Public Defenders go to law school and are licensed to practice law. Basically, they are a service provided for by the State of Florida because the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling many years ago that all people have the right to legal counsel if they are charged with a crime that puts their liberty at stake. Therefore, for people who cannot afford an attorney and are considered financially indigent, the Public Defender is available for representation.

If public defenders are licensed attorneys, what is the downside?

First of all, the purpose of this page is NOT to bash public defenders. They are not “public pretenders.” Most of them work very hard for a very low salary. Most of them have good intentions and got into the job for the right reasons.

I can speak from experience about this. When I first graduated from law school in 2001, I knew I wanted to practice criminal defense. My first job was at the public defender’s office right here in Okaloosa County. From 2001-2004, I defended thousands of clients in misdemeanor and felony court. I gained a lot of experience in a short time. To this day, I still draw on some of the things I learned 15 years ago as a public defender.

Here is the problem:

In Florida, the typical public defender has a caseload that borders on the extreme. Even though the American Bar Association recommends a caseload of around 100 cases per person, per year, it’s not uncommon for a misdemeanor level public defender, fresh out of law school, to handle upwards of 1800-2000 cases a year. For felony level public defenders, 500-700 cases a year is not all that uncommon. That means that at any given time, a single public defender may have 100-300 open and active cases that are set for trial.

It will be up to you to decide whether you think that caseload might affect how your case is defended.

I left the public defender’s office to start Flaherty & Merrifield because I was frustrated that I couldn’t give my clients the time and attention they deserved. When I left, I was handling several hundred cases. Now that I am in private practice, I limit the number of cases I take on so that each client is given personal attention and careful review.

Is a private attorney worth the money?

Everyone has heard the saying “you get what you pay for.” You will have to decide for yourself the best option. Consider the following questions:

  1. Would you like to have an attorney who gives your case personal attention?
  2. If you have questions, would you like to be able to have those questions answered right away?
  3. Do you want to talk to your attorney before court, in his office, or do you want to get in line with everyone else at the courthouse?
  4. If you go with the public defender and the case doesn’t end the way you hoped for, will you wonder if you should have hired your own attorney?
  5. Will the outcome of this case affect your ability to earn money in the future?
  6. Do you have anything to lose if you get convicted and sentenced to jail or prison?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you should consider hiring a private attorney. If you are worried about the cost, I’ll be glad to explain all of the costs to you, and will try to make it as easy as possible to work out payment arrangements.

Can I hire a private attorney if I currently have a public defender?

Most of the time, yes. If you are thinking of doing this, give me a call. I’ll give you an honest assessment of your case. You and I will decide together whether I should come on board, or whether you should stay with your public defender.

You’re probably thinking that I always say that the client should bring me on. Not true. If the public defender is doing the same things on the case that I would do, I will tell you that.

If I believe I can do a better job than what the public defender is doing, or not doing, I’ll tell you. Then, I’ll spell out exactly what I’d do differently. Then, you can make your decision.

If we decide to work together, it is very simple to replace the public defender. You won’t have to do anything. I will take care of the paperwork and let them know.

Contact an Okaloosa County Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime in Okaloosa County, call Flaherty & Merrifield today at (850) 403-6835 for a free consultation.

Tim Flaherty
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Florida Criminal Defense Attorney