Public defenders encourage UNH law students to join the career

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Monitor staff

Published: 09-27-2023 5:16 PM

In rural and poor communities throughout New Hampshire, defendants will sometimes sit in jail for days or weeks at a time waiting to be assigned a lawyer because they can’t afford one. 

“The profession is in crisis and there are not enough public defenders to meet the needs of these communities,” said Rachel Rossi, director of the federal Office for Access to Justice on Wednesday during a presentation to students at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. “During my first internship, I interviewed people in jail about their most immediate needs from childcare to medication and I knew it was the community I wanted to help and the fight that I wanted to do.” 

The panel, which is being hosted in law schools throughout the country by the U.S. Department of Justice seeks to address the critical need for public defenders, the future of public defense in rural and indigent communities and the benefits and challenges of working in public defense. Panelists offered advice to students on how to build sustainable and rewarding careers working with rural and indigent communities. 

“There’s always been a debate about what rural is. For me, it was a town that didn’t have stoplights,” said Kyle Robidas, an attorney with the New Hampshire Public Defender’s Office. “But being rural, having a driver’s license and transportation is a big deal and service for your clients is probably very limited.” 

Like Robidas, Richard Samdperil, the interim executive director of the New Hampshire Judicial Council, and Kevin Ruderman, a recruiting and hiring manager for public counsel services, never saw careers in public defense but were equally drawn to helping the residents of rural communities. Both are part of the Office for Access to Justice’s nationwide mission to inspire law students and listen to their concerns about public defense careers. The office was established in 2010.

Wednesday’s talk was titled “Giving Meaning to Gideon: The Rewards and Challenges of Public Defender Work in Northern New England.” In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Clarence Gideon, which guaranteed the right to legal counsel for criminal defendants in federal and state courts who could not afford their own attorney. 

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Poor, rural communities often don’t have equitable access to healthcare, education, transportation or legal counsel, panelists said. Oftentimes, defendants will spend weeks in jail because the county cannot find a lawyer for them. 

“A lot of this work is finding resources that are absent and lawyers who are taking those cases have an increased responsibility and challenge they’re working with of not only providing legal services but being a conduit to other types of central services in places where there is overall less support,” Samdperil said. 

Additionally, in many rural and indigent areas public defenders spend 40% of their days driving from court to jail and client’s homes to speak to them, Ruderman added. The result is a lack of face-to-face relationship building that leads to mistrust between lawyer and client, panelists said. 

“From talking to hundreds of attorneys, it’s living in these communities with your clients and representing the folks that come from that community,” Samdperil continued. “There are opportunities there that you won’t find in a city.”

Ending the panel with a few pieces of advice, Ruderman urged the law students to figure out what they want to litigate, understand why they’re choosing this career, recognize their own privileges and find healthy ways to manage stress. 

“Be honest with them [clients], listen to them,  follow through on your promises and fight for them in court, even if you lose,” he said. “Meet them where they are, that’s what they need from us.” 

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