Hoping to attract law students and young lawyers facing an increasingly dismal job market, representatives from public defender offices across the country are converging in Washington this weekend to make their pitch.
Since 2008, the D.C. Public Defender Service has organized a biennial conference dedicated to raising the profile of indigent criminal defense work. Public defender offices are often represented at general public interest job fairs, but PDS director of legal recruiting and conference organizer Jennifer Thomas said they saw a need for an event focusing on topics unique to public defender recruitment and jobs.
"In the civil legal services…everybody assumes you're on the side of the angels. In criminal defense, the public perception is very different," she said.
This year's conference is scheduled for July 28. Thomas said they're expecting representatives from D.C. and public defender offices in Virginia, Miami, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Colorado, the Bronx, Harlem, New Hampshire and possibly Maryland. The one-day free event is being hosted at Georgetown University Law Center and supported by financial contributions from Jenner & Block and Miller & Chevalier.
Panels are aimed at debunking certain myths about public defender work and recruitment, Thomas said, such as that grades don't matter. "If there's any place where academic performance matters, it's when you're representing someone who can't choose a lawyer for themselves," she said. Other panels will cover the experience and temperament public defender offices want in potential hires and the nuts and bolts of indigent criminal defense work.
About 200 people attended the first conference – formally known as the Public Defender Advocacy, Hiring and Training Conference, or PATH – in 2008. Thomas said that they're expecting around 300 to 350 participants this year.
In recent years, Thomas said law school career services offices have increasingly pushed students to consider government or public interest work. Public defender offices don't want students to apply because they couldn't get a job somewhere else, she said, but added that she is "seeing more people who are more willing to follow their dreams because the other stuff has dissipated," she said. This year, Thomas said she's also noticed more registrations from lawyers already employed at firms.
Online registration is closed for the July 28 conference, but Thomas said interested participants can e-mail Meka Milton at firstname.lastname@example.org to register.