Becoming a Criminal Lawyer
Criminal lawyers, also known as criminal defense lawyers and public defenders, 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. This interview with a criminal defense attorney provides insight into one criminal lawyer's career path and daily practice.
Education and Experience
Like all lawyers, criminal lawyers must obtain a law degree and pass the bar examination in the state in which they intend to practice. 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 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 lawyers must have excellent oral and written advocacy skills in order to argue a client's case before a judge and persuade a jury. Investigative and research skills are also important in building a client's case and establishing a strong defense. Criminal lawyers must also have strong creative thinking and analytical skills to develop a legal strategy, analyze case law and litigate complex cases.
Criminal lawyers must also have an 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.
In addition, 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.
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.
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.
Breaking into Criminal Law
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.
Criminal law is a growing practice niche. As crime rates and criminal laws spiral upwards, 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.