The hallmark professional obligation of all criminal defense lawyers is zealous, high-quality representation of each client. Providing effective client-centered advocacy is the core mission of every individual defender and defender organization. Yet public defense systems throughout the country face powerful forces that threaten their ability and the ability of individual public defense attorneys to provide this constitutionally required representation.
Defender leaders face significant organizational and fiscal challenges. The majority of public defense systems in the United States are grossly underfunded and lack the physical and human resources required to carry out their mandates. Without adequate funding and resources, defender agencies are forced to carry exceedingly high caseloads that prevent them from providing high-quality, ethical, conflict-free representation to their clients. Defender system attorneys and staff struggle to do their jobs well, without the time, tools, and training that are needed to do so.
One of the most difficult leadership challenges facing public defense system leaders is transitioning from being a trial lawyer to a manager and leader of staff and colleagues. Leading and managing a defender system is different than representing a client and requires defender leaders to think in new and different ways about the work they are doing. With training and adjustment, trial skills can be valuable assets and provide an effective foundation for leadership and management.
Defender leaders also face public perception challenges. Public defenders and defense systems boards, administrators, and management play a critical role in the criminal justice system. All too frequently, however, public defense leaders are viewed by policymakers, legislators, the judiciary, prosecutors, and the public as the people who "get the criminals off." Such distorted perceptions inhibit the ability of defender leaders to effectively fulfill their roles as equal partners in managing and improving the criminal justice system.
NDLI promotes in defender leadership the skills and habits of mind, action, and heart needed to address the array of powerful institutional forces that deeply affect client outcomes.