A public defender’s office builds leading-edge client-centered representation and transformational culture to deliver “justice for a new generation”

The Office of the Shelby County Public Defender (“SCPD”) is the oldest public defense system in Tennessee and the third oldest in the country, representing poor clients in 40,000 cases per year. The SCPD is challenged by trends facing public defense systems across the nation, including overwhelming workloads, inadequate resources, and overburdened public funding sources. In the face of these challenges, in 2011 the SCPD chose to launch a planning and culture change initiative to realize its vision of Justice for a New Generation – such that all persons accused in Shelby County receive high-quality, client-centered legal representation and access to resources that empower them to lead productive lives.

The SCPD engaged Consilience Group (CG) to facilitate participatory planning based on national standards for client-centered representation and the principles of Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”. More than 90 SCPD associates and staff were engaged to create a shared vision, values and concrete work plans to guide immediate implementation. Three years later, with many strategies successfully completed, CG worked with the SCPD to update its strategic plan and implementation priorities, re-engage existing employees in the initial planning vision, and orient new employees to the SCPD maxim of client-centered service delivery. CG also delivered operational design services to support the SCPD’s new specialized Juvenile Defender Unit, focusing on connecting court-involved youth to a holistic suite of community resources and services.


Guided by its strategic and operational plan, between 2013 and 2015 the SCPD strengthened its leadership structure, built its staff capacities and implemented new client-centered processes. It completely redesigned its workspace to support client-centered practice; implemented a recruiting and professional development program that lead to the hiring of dozens of new, specially trained attorneys from around the country; deepened its collaborative partnership with an area law school; incubated and spun-off an external advocacy organization for justice reform policy; and launched a specialized Juvenile Defender Unit.