Deputy Public Defender IV, El Dorado County Public Defender in Placerville, Calif.
Area of Practice: Criminal Law
Year Graduated: 2002
Before she became a lawyer, Rachel Miller was a debater. During college, she dedicated herself to the debate team, honing her public speaking and critical thinking skills at competitions nationwide. She enjoyed debating so much that she began looking for careers that would emulate her experience on the team. This led Ms. Miller — a native of Northern California — to return to her home turf to attend University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law.
During law school, Ms. Miller worked in a plaintiffs' civil litigation firm and handled traffic trials as an intern with the District Attorney's Office. After she received her J.D., Ms. Miller found employment in the offices of a solo practitioner in Placerville, California who specialized in criminal defense, and thus began her career as a criminal law attorney. Ms. Miller eventually found her niche in her current job as a Deputy Public Defender for El Dorado County. "It's a very rewarding job," she notes, "I don't know that I would want to do anything else. I'm really well suited to this job."
As a Deputy Public Defender, Ms. Miller represents indigent defendants in criminal cases in El Dorado County. "The purpose of my job," she explains, "is to make sure that defendants are getting a fair trial. My current assignment is a misdemeanor caseload, so I'm responsible for misdemeanor cases from arraignment until trial." Ms. Miller also works with the El Dorado County specialty courts, which are made up of various drug courts, a behavioral health court, and a DUI court. These courts, Ms. Miller observes, follow "an entirely different model" from other criminal courts, one that focuses on collaboration rather than antagonism. Within the specialty courts, judges, district attorneys, and defense attorneys work together to fashion solutions that will hopefully help criminal defendants overcome drug addiction, alcoholism, and other mental health issues so that they can become functioning members of society. Ms. Miller remarks, "We're really there to help the client get treatment. I like that assignment a lot because it's a different kind of assignment. Your assignment is really trying to help get your client out of the criminal justice system ... It's especially rewarding. I see people's lives change, from being addicts to being productive citizens."
In addition to her work as a public defender, Ms. Miller serves as President for the El Dorado County Bar Association. In her capacity as President, she is responsible for overseeing day-to-day management of the Association, resolving membership issues, finding speakers for events, and defining the Association's goals, among other things. She likes that the position allows her to give back to her community and to meet local attorneys who practice in other fields.
Ms. Miller says that people skills, client control, issue spotting, time management, and organization are all paramount in her profession. Working as a public defender, Ms. Miller has to be able to keep track of a huge number of cases at any given time. "The Public Defender's Office especially is a high volume business ... An attorney at a private firm might have thirty or forty cases; I have about two hundred cases," she explains, "You don't necessarily get to put in the amount of time you'd like to with each individual client, so you have to be able to evaluate what's important and prioritize things. You have to be able to get into court, get your cases together, meet with your clients, and be relatively efficient." Most importantly, she says, "You have to be quick on your feet because you're basically in court all the time, and things are going to happen that you're not going to expect. Arguments are going to come up that you won't be able to anticipate, and you have to respond."
Public defenders face challenges in addition to heavy caseloads and unanticipated arguments. "It's hard work to be a trial lawyer," Ms. Miller notes, "It's very stressful, and you deal with a lot of people who in your everyday life you may try to avoid at all costs. It requires a lot of personal development." Furthermore, public defenders earn less than their private criminal defense counterparts. Still, for Ms. Miller and other public defenders, the fulfillment they receive from their work outweighs the hardships. And Ms. Miller derives great satisfaction from being able to help her clients. "When you really do a good job for a client who's in a bad position, has made a bad decision, or is getting taken advantage of, they're very grateful," she says.
Ms. Miller recommends that students who are interested in criminal law take advocacy classes and participate in Mock Trial or Moot Court, all of which "are beneficial to give an idea of how the [criminal justice] system works." She warns, however, that these classes cannot replace real experience. "Law school's tough, but learning how to think like an attorney is the best thing you can get out of law school," Ms. Miller suggests, "You just don't know, and you can't understand, how the system works until you've really seen it ... I don't think there's anything more beneficial than finding a mentor, going to court with them, and seeing what their days are like."