Project Aims To Attract, Train Public Defenders

Program designed to add law grads to the South.

, The National Law Journal


Gideon's Promise founder John Rapping
Gideon's Promise founder John Rapping

By letting students know they have a school-funded position in a public defender's office before the bar exam, those offices will attract students who may not have considered applying otherwise, Rapping said.

Stephen Bush, chief public defender in Shelby County, Tenn., where Memphis is located, said it's difficult to recruit top talent out of law school because his office can only fill open positions. Even then, he is restricted to hiring attorneys already licensed to practice in Tennessee. "This program will help us overcome a number of challenges when it comes to recruiting," he said. "And it will broaden the diversity and perspectives of the attorneys in our office."

Rapping formed the Southern Public Defender Training Center in 2007 — rec­ently renamed Gideon's Promise — to help improve the quality of indigent defense throughout the South. He had worked in the Public Defenders Service for the District of Columbia before relocating to Georgia in 2004, and was dismayed by what he found.

"I started to see that the high standard of representation in D.C. was the exception rather than the rule," he said. "In the South, the expectations for representation are embarrassingly low."

Gideon's Promise has widened its scope, and administrators believe partnering directly with law schools is an important next step. Participating law schools will determine how much to pay their fellows for the first year, Rapping said. After that, the fellows will be hired as permanent public defenders, initially earning between $40,000 and $55,000 a year.

Administrators at New York University say the benefits are twofold. "[T]alented NYU students committed to public defense work secure their dream jobs," and … some of the nation's neediest communities receive the high quality representation that our Constitution promises, and that every defendant deserves," said NYU law professor Erin Murphy.

Contact Karen Sloan at

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