What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image shows a criminal lawyer standing in front of a stand in a courtoom with a convict sitting behind him. Text reads:

Image by Julie Bang © The Balance 2019

Criminal lawyers, also known as criminal defense lawyers and public defenders, work to defend individuals, organizations, and entities that have been charged with a crime. Criminal lawyers handle a diverse spectrum of criminal cases, ranging from domestic violence crimes, sex crimes, violent crimes and drug crimes to driving under the influence (DUI), theft, embezzlement, and fraud.

Criminal Lawyer Duties & Responsibilities

Criminal lawyers represent defendants facing criminal charges in state, federal and appellate courts. Their scope of practice includes bail bond hearings, plea bargains, trial, revocation hearings (parole or probation), appeals and post-conviction remedies. As part of the lawyer's job functions, a criminal lawyer will:

  • Investigate the case and interview witnesses
  • Research case law, statutes, crimes codes, and procedural law
  • Build a defense and develop a case strategy
  • Negotiate with the prosecution to plea bargain to lesser charges
  • Draft, file and argue motions such as motions to dismiss and motions to suppress
  • Advocate for the defendant at trial
  • Draft, file and argue appeals

Criminal Lawyer Salary

Criminal lawyer salaries vary, depending on the size and scope of the practice, the clientele the firm serves and the geographic location of the firm. Public defender and non-profit salaries are usually modest (the $30,000 to $50,000 range is common).

Criminal lawyers employed in law firms generally earn the highest salaries; experienced criminal attorneys can earn well into the six figures. The highest paid criminal lawyers are often those that represent high-profile, wealthy defendants in high-stakes cases.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the salary range for all attorneys, including criminal attorneys, is as follows:

Education, Training & Certification

The education and other requirements to practice as a criminal attorney are as follows:

  • Education: Like all lawyers, criminal lawyers must first complete a bachelor's degree, then obtain a law degree. The two degrees typically take a total of seven years to complete.
  • License: Criminals attorneys must pass the bar examination in the state in which they intend to practice.
  • Certification: Some criminal lawyers earn a board certification from the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification (NBLSC). The NBLSC is a non-profit organization accredited by the American Bar Association to provide board certification for attorneys and is an outgrowth of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.

Criminal Lawyer Skills & Competencies

Criminal lawyers must possess a variety of additional skills to succeed in their jobs, including the following:

  • Writing and speaking skills: Excellent oral and written advocacy skills in order to argue a client's case before a judge and persuade a jury.
  • Research and investigative skills: Investigative and research skills are also important in building a client's case and establishing a strong defense.
  • Creative and analytical skills: Strong creative thinking and analytical skills to develop a legal strategy, analyze case law and litigate complex cases.
  • Legal knowledge and experience: In-depth understanding of state, federal and local rules, court procedures, evidentiary laws, and local judges to navigate the criminal justice system efficiently and competently.
  • Interpersonal skills: Excellent interpersonal skills are necessary to build a strong client-attorney relationship. Criminal defendants are a finicky group who sometimes go through many lawyers before settling on one they like. Therefore, the ability to attract and retain clients is essential to a thriving criminal defense practice.

Job Outlook

Criminal law is a growing practice niche. As crime rates spiral upwards and criminal laws change, the number of people sentenced to prison has risen nearly threefold over the past 30 years. Crime rates have increased and prison populations are exploding across the country. As new criminal laws are codified and more Americans are charged under state and federal laws, the need for criminal lawyers to defend the accused will also rise.

According to the BLS, the growth in jobs for all attorneys, including criminal attorneys, from 2016-2026 relative to other occupations and industries is 8%. This growth rate compares to the projected 7% growth for all occupations.

Work Environment

Most criminal lawyers work in private practice or in a solo firm. Some work for non-profit agencies or for the government as public defenders. Criminal lawyers often work long, irregular hours. They frequently meet with clients outside their office at the courthouse, prisons, hospitals and other venues. Most criminal lawyers maintain a local practice. However, for criminal attorneys with a national practice, frequent travel is required.

Work Schedule

Most attorneys work full-time hours and many work over 40 hours each week. Attorneys working either in large firms or in private practice often work extra hours, preparing and reviewing documents, and conducting research.

How to Get the Job

MOCK TRIAL AND MOOT COURT EXPERIENCE

Many criminal lawyers start their careers as prosecutors or public defenders. A public defender is an attorney appointed by the court to represent defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. Mock trial and moot court experience in law school are helpful as it allows the attorney to develop oral advocacy skills and gain trial experience in a simulated setting.


NETWORK

Attend legal industry events to make contacts at law firms and meet potential hiring partners or gain referrals.


APPLY

Look at job-search resources like Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com for available positions. You can also visit your law school's career center for job opportunities.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in a criminal lawyer career also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:

  • Judges & hearing officers: $117,190
  • Paralegals & legal assistants: $50,940
  • Arbitrators, mediators, & conciliators: $62,270