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Although the American Bar Association’s standard for caseloads is 150 felonies per year per lawyer, public defenders often have three or four times that number, Rapping said.
“Even 150 is not reasonable,” Rapping said. A lawyer could work six days a week and take no vacation and still only get two days total with a client, sandwiching in interviews, investigations and court time.
Despite the challenges, Rapping had high praise for Minnesota. “You have leadership, really good public defenders and a good, statewide training program,” he said. “But public defenders in Minnesota also need more resources and relief.”
Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty, who trains young lawyers through Gideon’s Promise, agreed. Hennepin County, she said, is operating at about 54 percent of the recommended attorney staffing guidelines provided by the Minnesota State Board of Public Defense.
Gideon’s Promise hopes to change that state by state. Its three-year training program already is successfully grooming the next generation of public defenders, Rapping said, “to ensure that our system lives up to the ideals of justice and due process that make us quintessentially American.”
O’Brien, the father of four young adult children, is grateful that he could honor those ideals for more than three decades. “This is what I was called to do,” he said of the often gritty world that shaped his professional life.
O’Brien remembers a client, “a big, hulking guy,” who was charged with robbing houses. He and O’Brien stood as the verdict was read. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. “He was convicted of everything,” O’Brien said. Then the man turned to O’Brien, shook O’Brien’s hand and said, “Thanks.”
“It’s the best job in the world,” O’Brien said, “and also the most humbling.”