Conflict Cases in Lawrence County

The Lawrence County public defender office, with its six full-time attorneys and two office staff, handles near all conflict cases including those involving codefendants. “We cover as many conflicts as we can in-house,” the office explained. In a multi-defendant case, each codefendant is assigned to a different public defender office attorney until the office runs out of attorneys who are sufficiently qualified to handle that level of case. When there are not enough attorneys to handle all of the codefendants in a single case, the public defender office assigns the additional codefendants to private attorneys (they have a group of six that they regularly use) and pays these attorneys an hourly rate of $70 plus travel costs (from the public defender office budget).

The public defender office chose to handle all cases in-house, rather than assign more cases to assigned counsel, in order to maintain quality control and because there are not enough qualified private attorneys to handle cases. “We talked about it internally all the time, we were very aware of [the ethical issues].” The chief public defender bolsters the office’s decision on the basis of an Indiana Supreme Court case where, according to Lawrence County, the court said it is okay for multiple attorneys within an office to handle codefendants’ cases as long as they follow specific rules. The Lawrence County public defender office is very conscious to follow these rules, even to the point of not listing each attorney’s name on the office letterhead since that would give the appearance of the attorneys working collaboratively. The office has ethical screens set up where only the chief public defender and the office manager have access to everything — every assistant public defender is behind a computer firewall so they cannot see each other’s case files, and cases where a conflict is identified are flagged so the attorneys know not to casually mention those cases with co-workers.

In 2009, the Indiana Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in a case arising out of a disciplinary action brought against a Putnam County public defense attorney when he and another public defense attorney, both under contract with the county, exchanged information about what turned out to be two clients of their public defense system who had antagonistic interests.[1] Notably, the two clients were not codefendants in the same case, and the attorneys were contractors rather than employees of a single law firm public defender office. The Recker Court said:

There is no uniform system of providing indigent defense in Indiana’s 92 counties. For example, indigent defense in Marion County is provided by the attorneys employed by the Marion County Public Defender Agency. In some counties, attorneys providing such services may be considered to comprise one law firm. Under the Putnam County system, however, the public defenders simply share office space and support services provided for their use by the courts. They are not deemed to be members of a firm, at least for the purpose of the rule that information acquired by one lawyer in a firm is attributed to another.

Regardless of whether public defenders in a particular county are considered to be members of a firm, it is imperative that they consider the implications their relationship have on their professional duties to their clients. If the attorneys are deemed to be members of a firm, avoiding improper conflicts of interest must be given a high priority. If the attorneys are considered to be practicing independently, they must take care not to share improperly confidential information about their clients with each other. Attorneys sharing office space, as public defenders or in other contexts, may benefit from consulting with each other about legal issues, but this can be done ethically only after first determining that the interests of both attorneys’ clients are not compromised.[2]


[1] In re Recker, 902 N.E. 225 (Ind. 2009).

[2] In re Recker, 902 N.E. 225, 229 (Ind. 2009).