“no offense, but I need to get a real lawyer”


I have worked for the Office of the District Public Defender for nearly 16 years. I have turned down other jobs that would have paid more and been less work, but I keep doing what I’m doing because I like it and because I get to spend a lot of time in the courtroom, and if I do say so myself, I’m pretty good at it. I constantly run into people- including, unfortunately, clients- who think that because I’m an assistant public defender, I am either not really a lawyer or not a very good one.        

I am an assistant public defender because I believe the government must be held accountable and kept firmly in check. The rights to a defense, a trial by impartial jury, and access to the advice of counsel are so important they were written directly into the Sixth Amendment of our Constitution. I am an assistant public defender because I believe that “but for the grace of God, there go I.” What if the power of the government stood against my wife, or my sister, or my mother, or my child? I would want a strong and sharp lawyer who cared what happened to that person and treated them and their rights with respect. I strive to be the lawyer I would want for my family and to represent my clients to the best of my ability, regardless of what they look like, how much money they have, or what they have been accused of.  

The average assistant public defender will handle more cases in one year than most private lawyers will handle in ten.


At the point lawyer and client decide to bring a case to trial, the stakes are carefully considered. The stakes are the difference between the state’s offer if your client pleads guilty and the much higher penalty the state will demand if the case is lost at trial. By trial date, those terrible stakes have been put in cold storage somewhere in the trial lawyer’s mind. The focus is now on the jury and how to persuade them that there is a reasonable doubt about the state’s case against your client, and that persuasion begins the moment they first file into the courtroom and continues through the pinnacle of the trial, closing argument. Although you are drained afterward, the trial itself is exhilarating.

Assistant public defenders deal directly with both the Tennessee State Constitution and the U.S. Constitution on a daily basis, and that’s also fun. We go into court and argue the state and federal constitutions and see the law of those two documents applied directly in our case at bar. It sends a chill down my spine every time.

The excitement of being an assistant public defender makes the serious part of the job bearable, and the serious part is what keeps us coming back to the courtroom.

Representing an indigent client is all about duty. When a case is assigned, that duty arises, and it remains until the client is sentenced after a plea of guilty, he is freed after a successful trial, or his case is appealed after an unsuccessful one. Because your client is poor and can’t afford anyone else, the duty owed him is the highest duty a lawyer can have.

Because the client is poor, he is at the mercy of everyone in the criminal justice system. The full power of the state is arrayed against the client, and the only thing that stands between him and that pulverizing power is you.

The duty that a public defender owes to his client comes before anyone or anything else, before wives, before children, before friends, before any personal plans, and before sleep.

If an assistant public defender wins at trial, there will be no pep rally and there will be no raise in pay. A harried colleague passing in the hall might call out, “good job.” If he loses, there will be no anxious postmortem in the supervisor’s office. There simply isn’t time.

No one but you will know if you met your duty. Sometimes a savvy client will know, but most of the time only you will know. And even if you believe you have done everything legally, ethically and humanly possible, you will still wake up in the middle of the night to go over the case step by step one more futile time, and God help your conscience if you conclude that yes, there was something more you could have done.

I consider it an honor to be an assistant public defender, to protect the rights of an otherwise defenseless human being, to embrace the duty regardless of personal cost, and fight to keep the power of the state in check.

Assistant public defenders are generally very capable, highly experienced trial lawyers who make the most of their resources and stand for ensuring that people receive a zealous defense. Assistant public defenders are the last line of defense against the presumption of guilty unless proven innocent.  

Are assistant public defenders real lawyers? You bet they are, and I am proud to be one.  – – Ken McKnight








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