DUI Lawyer or Public Defender? Pros and Cons

By Brett Snider, Esq. on April 08, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When you're facing a DUI charge, you won't feel like you have many options. But in most places, you have at least two: a private attorney or a public defender.

Which is the best choice for you? It may depend on your situation and whether (or how much) you're willing or able to pay.

Here are a few pros and cons to consider when deciding between a private DUI attorney versus a public defender for your drunken driving case:

Private DUI Attorney: Pros

  • You choose your own attorney. Americans love choice, and the beauty of capitalism is the ability to choose the services you feel best about with your dollars. Going private for your DUI attorney means the ability to shop around (by browsing different DUI lawyer profiles), ask questions, and not feel like you're settling.
  • Smaller case load. Private DUI attorneys choose which cases they work on, so they tend to have much smaller case loads than public defenders. This can potentially mean more time and attention spent on your case.


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Public Defender: Pros

  • You may be entitled to a free public defender. The Sixth Amendment entitles criminal defendants in felony cases to some form of court-appointed attorney, which is typically a public defender. Not all DUIs are felonies, but many state and local courts will provide you with a public defender for free if you cannot otherwise afford an attorney.
  • Extensive local experience. Most public defenders spend almost every day at the local courthouse. They are familiar with the local rules, the judges, disposition of the juries and may have dealt with hundreds of cases just like yours.

Private DUI Attorney: Cons

  • Legal help isn't cheap. Although many attorneys offer free consultations, actual representation by a private DUI attorney will cost you. On the plus side, many attorneys have flexible payment options for their fees.
  • Potentially less courtroom experience. A private DUI attorney may have less on his or her plate; for some, that also means less time spent in court -- the court where you'll be facing DUI charges. That's why you'll want to ask a prospective attorney about his or her courtroom experience, and perhaps even if he or she has argued cases in front of your particular judge.

Public Defender: Cons

  • You may not get a public defender. In many cases, if you have the ability to pay for a private DUI attorney, that means you are not eligible for a public defender.
  • Distracted or overworked. Public defenders can have as many as a dozen clients to defend in a single court day. That means your DUI case may not be your public defender's primary focus -- especially if he or she has a huge case coming up later.

Now that you know a few pro and cons, choosing a public defender or a private DUI attorney won't be as daunting. To learn more about DUI cases in general, check out FindLaw's free Guide to DUI Charges.

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