How to Become a Defense Attorney | Steps To the Career as a Criminal Lawyer

If you want to learn how to become a defense attorney, you should realize that criminal defense attorneys are a group of people who have a deep interest in both the legal and the criminal justice system. They are interested in cases that have been brought by the government and in cases that are being investigated for possible prosecution. In those cases that they represent, they will be concerned about the just treatment of their clients and will work to ensure that they prevent any possible wrongful convictions along with the harm they may do to their clients' lives.

You don't necessarily have to embody that mindset but it wouldn't hurt. Beside having an interest in criminal defense and law, you will also have to understand what does a defense attorney do. With that in mind, you should get your bachelor's degree and pass the LSAT. Afterwards, you'll have to make it through law school then get certification through the bar. 

Though it sounds simple enough, everybody knows that it's more of a marathon than a quick sprint. But don't worry, we have your back. With this guide, we will outline the general path to becoming a successful defense lawyer. During this journey, we'll be there for you providing the tools you'll need to get there. In fact, if you want to have a headstart on your LSAT preparation, you can read our review on these great LSAT guides which  will help you to successfully pass any of the LSAT prep courses we reviewed.

Start with a Bachelor’s Degree

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The first step to your law degree will be taken when you step out onto the university where you will get your undergraduate degree. When choosing a major to get a bachelor's degree in, you should seek out one designed to give you a solid foundation in all the basics of law school, such reading, writing, history, civics, and most importantly critical thinking. The most popular degrees to prepare for a career in law are history, English and philosophy. As you can plainly see, these degrees place an emphasis on mastering the English language while providing a solid foundation of critical thinking you can base your works on.

Additionally, you should consider minoring in business administration, public affairs, computer science, or a field related to the specific area of law you are interested in. With a minor in computer science, you would have the knowledge and skills to go into patent law. With a criminology minor, you will be able to go into the speciality of criminal law and play a defense attorney role in the legal profession. By strategically taking certain courses and seeking out specific opportunities, you can make a strong case for yourself when applying to law school. 

a bachelor opening the door

Get a Good Score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

After completing your bachelor's degree in your chosen major (hopefully with a minor in a field you're interested in), your next step will be taking the LSAT. Though there has been a movement with law schools to start to remove the LSAT as a requirement, I firmly believe that taking the LSAT will open more opportunities than if you didn't take it. In that case you want to do well on the LSAT.

If you want to do well on the LSAT,  you'll have to practice and don't worry we'll have plenty of resources for you to use. As you practice, you'll have to keep in mind that this exam will test your critical reading, verbal reasoning, and analytical thinking. When you read the questions provided, think not only about their literal meaning but also those provided by contextual clues. It would also be useful thinking about what kind of questions you would write for the test and the answers to them as that will deepen your understanding of the thought process behind the test.

By practicing writing essays, you'll learn how to identify essays that you have the most trouble with. After a lot of practice and with us as your guide, we are pretty confident that you'll have no trouble with the almost 4 hour test. 

Education Needed to Be a Defense Attorney Lawyer

Now that you passed the LSAT and gotten the acceptance letter from your law school, you're on a concrete path to becoming a lawyer. While in law school, you'll be introduced to the different legal theories and concepts that make the foundations of the legal profession. You'll also learn about the mindset and logic of a lawyer. With this kind of mindset, you'll be shown the many ways in which lawyers can be effective lawyers by utilizing not only the text of the law but the mindset of a legal scholar to turn the text to your favor. With this, you can learn how lawyers can help stop crime through the courts, prevent lawsuits on innocent parties, protect your client, and much more.

But don't forget about all the paperwork you'll have to do. As you study to become a lawyer, you'll have to draft documents like contracts, wills, and other legal documents. At the end of your education, you'll probably have written more legal documents than you can remember. It's at this point where your minor or specialized knowledge in a field can really shine. For example, if you'd like to become a real estate agent, you'll need to know how to write a real estate contract but this might be easier if you took a course in Business. But we know you want to become a defense lawyer, so this is where your criminology minor would really show. With the critical thinking and investigative abilities you picked up from that minor, you will be able to fully hone your skills and techniques in law school to be a rather effective defense attorney.  

Salary and Career Info for a Defense Lawyer

After you graduate law school and pass the bar, you will probably go looking for a job in a reputable law firm. A common but sought after job is to become a criminal defense lawyer. If you have taken our advice in seeking opportunities in the fields that you are interested in, then you must have some experience working in criminal law either in a clinic or during an internship. These will help you stand out from the pack when applying to a position.

Though the average defense attorney salary starts around $80 thousand dollars, you can expect to earn more as you develop your skills and experience doing your job while rising on the career ladder. In most law firms, new defense attorneys start off as junior associates then rise to prosecutor or public defender depending on their skills and abilities. Ultimately, most will become a partner in a law firm. However if that does not appeal to you, you can take the alternative path of becoming a district attorney.

Salary and Career Info for a Criminal Justice Lawyer

The career and salary path for criminal justice lawyers are very similar because they are essentially the same jobs with slightly different names. As a criminal defense lawyer, you'll juggle multiple cases with various clients while performing tasks like gathering evidence through police reports or even consulting the expertise of private investigators. 

As above you'll make around 80 thousand dollars starting up with increases due to skill and experience. If the law firm life isn't for you, you can also seek out work at non-profits and help serve the marginalized and forgotten communities that desperately need your help.

An Overview of the Bar Exam

The bar exam is obviously considered one of the most difficult certifications to pass because of the sheer amount of information you need to know if you want a chance of passing. If you are just getting started on preparing for the bar exam, you will want to start by taking practice questions so you can determine your strengths and weaknesses. If you have taken the bar before, you should be familiar with most of the topics and concepts. 

As a refresher, the most common configuration of the bar consists of a two day examination where one is devoted to the Multistate Bar Exam which covers areas such as contracts and criminal law. The second day of testing consists of local essays on a broader range of subject matters. However, a number of states are moving toward using the Multistate Essay Examination instead as a non-territory specific way of administering the exam. However, the bar can still be very state specific so you should contact your local bar examiners for a better sense of what is required.

Top Law Firms Create New Kind of Defense Lawyers

You should always seek employment at the top law firms or governmental institutions but if you're looking to work in private law, you should seek out those firms that are working to conform to the new digital age and the advantages that such a transformation can bring into the firm. 

The main way that some law firms are realizing that only focusing on billable hours is a poor metric especially when it comes to measuring the efficiency of your workforce and providing a better work-life environment for their employees. Especially with the advent of video and telecommunications (whether or not that was forced by a global pandemic is another story), you should seek out law firms that have technology as part of their business strategy and an emphasis on useful metrics such as productivity rather than hours worked.  

The defender speaking on the trial

Job Description

If you’re asking what are the duties and responsibilities of a defense attorney. As mentioned before, the defense attorney definition is a lawyer that represents the defendant in the criminal system. The specific criminal defense lawyer skills needed can mean setting up arraignments to  working for a settlement conference and if need be, taking it from trial to their corresponding sentencing hearings. What was not mentioned before was the day to day life of a criminal defense lawyer.

In essence, you should expect to interview witnesses in the morning then perform legal research depending on their testimony. With that in mind, you might head off to create exhibits to demonstrate in court while accruing additional evidence on other cases you might have. You might even examine the crime scene and as for subject matter experts to speak in defense of your client. 

Job Requirements

Obviously the main requirements to a criminal lawyer is that you must hold a juris doctorate and an attorney's license for the state you practice in. If you're starting off, experience in criminal law through an internship or significant clinical experience will be very helpful in placing a job. 

Hopefully with this guide on how to become a defense attorney, you will be able to succeed where many others have failed. If you find yourself faltering and needing support, we will always be here.

Leonard Haggin

I created this site to help students like you learn from the experiences my team had learned during our extensive academic careers. I am now studying Law at Stanford, but I also make time to write articles here in order to help all you fellow students advance in your academic careers and beyond. I hope our efforts on Study Prep Lounge will arm you with the knowledge you need to overcome whatever trial or test you find in front of you.

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