The Motivations of Defense Attorneys for the Indigent: Findings, Conclusions and Implications From interviews in Three Sites

Michael Scott Weiss, Rowan University

Over the years, researchers have expended much effort attempting to explain the behavior of court actors. There have been noticeably fewer attempts to understand practitioner motivation, or to consider the extent to which practitioner motivation might be linked to occupational choices. As such, semi-structured interviews were conducted with indigent defenders in order to understand why they chose to enter this line of work, and why they continue to do the work that they do. This research is based on a total of nearly fifty interviews with indigent defenders in three sites, each different from the others in location, population, and office structure. This paper presents the results of this research and finds that indigent defenders report "practical" job-related motivations, as well as "political" motivations involving socio-legal and constitutional doctrine, humanitarian and altruistic impulses, and critical and rebellious responses to what is perceived to be a lack of justice in both the criminal process and the larger society. Such motivations appear in different forms for different defenders, although most respondents indicate that "political" motivations drive them more intensely. In the end, the following question will be addressed: how do these findings contribute to a fuller understanding of the criminal courts?

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Updated 05/20/2006