4 minute read

Criminal Lawyer

Education and Training: Law degree, Bar examination
Average Salary: $78,500 (private firm), $95,100 (solo practice)
Job Outlook: Good

Criminal lawyers make up the bulk of practicing lawyers in the United States. These are lawyers who protect the rights of accused criminals to a fair trial. Essentially, a criminal lawyer’s job is to collect evidence, review evidence, and represent an accused person in a criminal trial.

Criminal attorneys or lawyers deal directly with their clients, who are accused of being involved in crime. They must have an intimate working knowledge of criminal law and case precedents in order to give their clients a chance at a fair trial. Outside of the courtroom, criminal lawyers are responsible for reviewing evidence collected by the police as well as for collecting their own evidence or statements from third parties.

Inside the courtroom, criminal lawyers will defend their clients’ cases by calling and cross-examining witnesses and giving opening and closing statements to the jury. Some criminal lawyers work for individuals and are hired for steep fees. Others may take only certain types of cases, centered on certain legal issues for which they want to take a stand. Still others are hired by the state to protect a criminal’s right to a fair trial.

Education and Training Requirements

Criminal lawyers must start out with a bachelor’s degree in law or a related field – often history or English with a few law classes mixed in. In fact, a non-legal degree can often help make a potential lawyer more competitive in the graduate law school pool because they can have a broader knowledge base that can be honed during law school.

Typically, law school takes three years. The first half is devoted to general law classes, and the last half is when the future lawyer can specialize in a certain type of law. Law students are advised to choose the classes in this last year carefully, as they’ll give direction to a lawyer’s future career. Law schools that offer hands-on experience in the courtroom give students a more competitive edge in the job market. After law school, a lawyer must pass the state bar exam before practicing, though requirements here vary from one state to the next.

Getting the Job

First, criminal lawyers must pass the state bar exam and get licensed to practice law in that state. In most states, an ethics exam is also required. Most of the time, if lawyers want to practice in another state, they must pass that state’s bar exam, as well. The Multistate Bar Exam is required in forty-eight states, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, and this can be used as part of the bar exam in other states, as well.

Once a lawyer is licensed, he or she will most likely start out with a lower-level job at an established law firm. The job market is competitive, so those with the most experience and the best grades and exam scores will have more of an edge on the competition.

Job Prospects, Employment Outlook and Career Development

While job growth is expected for criminal lawyers, the competition for these jobs is expected to be keen, since more students are graduating from law school than ever. Candidates with some hands-on experience and competitive test scores will be more likely to gain jobs in their field.

Criminal lawyers normally start in associate positions working with more experienced lawyers, but many eventually work their way up to partnership in a law firm. Many lawyers also become teachers in law schools or open solo practices, which is the most lucrative opportunity for most criminal lawyers. Some attorneys may even transition into a corporate environment, where their reasoning skills and legal knowledge make them good candidates for management-level positions.

Working Conditions and Environment

Criminal lawyers may do lots of traveling to meet with clients in their homes or even in prison or the hospital. They typically attend meetings, particularly if they’re part of a team working on the same case, and they spend plenty of time in legal libraries to do research for their cases. Criminal lawyers often blend their time between meetings outside of the office, courtroom procedures, and office-based work, and many put in more than fifty hours of work a week and work irregular hours.

Salary and Benefits

The average salary for a criminal lawyer working in a private firm, which is the most common area for these lawyers to work, is $78,600. Lawyers who become partners in the firm often make between $100,000 and $197,500. Attorneys in solo practice make an average of $95,100, but their income will depend largely on their case load and the types of clients they take. Some criminal lawyers work for non-profit groups and make around $41,500. Public defenders, who are employed by the state or federal courts to defend criminals who can’t afford their own attorneys can make between $44,400 and $92,300 per year, depending on experience.

In full-time positions, attorneys normally get health benefits and vacation benefits, though the self-employed will be responsible for providing these for themselves.

Where to Go for More Information

American Bar Association
321 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60654
(800) 295-2221

Law School Admission Council
662 Penn St.
Newtown, PA 18940
(251) 968-1001

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw and Public Service