Defense Attorney Career, Salary and Training Info

The defense attorney uses knowledge and courtroom skills as an advocate for the accused. To pursue a career as a defense attorney requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills to gain the trust of clients from very diverse backgrounds.

The defense attorney carries a great deal of responsibility and those entering this career should enjoy working with people. Essentials skills are creativity, perseverance, and reasoning ability as you will handle and analyze unique legal cases.

Defense Attorney Career Requirements

A bachelor’s degree is a requirement for applicants to law school. The undergraduate curriculum should include courses that emphasize spoken and written communication skills, research, analysis, and logical thinking.

The undergraduate major is not as important as acquiring a multidisciplinary background. Students who plan to specialize in one aspect of law are advised to take related undergraduate courses. Aspiring patent lawyers would find a background in engineering or science useful while future tax lawyers will need extensive accounting knowledge.

Defense Lawyer Education and Training

To become a defense attorney requires on average 7 years of full-time study after high school. All law school applicants must have a bachelor’s degree to qualify for admission to law school. This is then followed by 3 years of law school. After graduating from law school, students will need to pass the bar exam of the state in which they will practice before they begin their career.

Law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) require taking the LSAT. At this time, there are about 200 ABA-accredited law schools. Competition for admission to law school is intense and acceptance depends on the aptitude for the study of law the applicant has demonstrated.

Law school applicants are considered through their undergraduate GPA, the quality of the undergraduate institution, work experience, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and the score achieved on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Personal interviews may also be conducted, but that’s an exception to the rule. Competition for acceptance into law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) is intense. The weight placed on each of the qualifiers varies by the admission policies of the school.

When studying for a law degree at an accredited school, the first half of your education is focused on constitutional law, civil procedure, legal writing, and other core components. The last two years of law school allow you to select your area of specialty in law and gain practical experience. Legal clinics and mock court trials help students gain practical experience as do internships with law firms during summer months.

As an attorney you are licensed by the state where you plan to practice. Almost all states require the 6-hour Multistate Bar Examination which covers a broad range of legal issues. In addition, there may also be a locally prepared State bar examination and an ethics exam is required in some states.

The Multistate Performance Test required by some states may be taken at the same time as the bar. This is a one time requirement to test the practical skill levels of a new lawyer. In 2008, most law school graduates were required to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) which focuses on professional responsibility and judicial conduct. The MPRE can also be taken now during law school at accredited schools and is usually offered after completion of ethics courses.

Defense Attorney Salary

The income for a defense attorney will depend on whether the new attorney opens his own practice, is a member of a larger law firm, or joins the legal staff of a large corporation.

An attorney who joins a private law firm to begin his career can earn about $108,500 in his first year. A salaried position in business of government pays approximately half as much but has associated benefits of insurance and retirement plan contributions.

Defense attorneys who initially open their own private practice earn considerably less than those who join firms with established clients.

Defense Attorney Career Opportunities

Most newly licensed attorneys begin working in salary positions. They are often hired in associate positions and will work with experienced lawyers and judges to gain training in courtroom procedures, learn case management, and build research skills.

Others choose public service in salaried positions as public defenders. With experience, it is possible to become a partner in an established firm or to be appointed or elected as a judge at the state or federal level.

Take a look at other great Criminal Justice Careers.

Article written by Radek Gadek

Radek holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University. He is currently doing consulting work and runs this blog to provide relevant information on criminal justice degrees, colleges and related careers.

19 comments… add one
  • Maryellen

    Im a freshman in high school, and I would like to be a Defense Attorney when I get older. What high school classes should I take?

    • Radek M. Gadek

      Take as many English and Composition classes as you can. Learn to write.. I mean you’ll need to write very well.

      Other courses, take all Math, Sciences, History, Social Studies, etc. — you’ll need a well-rounded education to be a good candidate in my opinion.

      Participate in extracurricular activities (debate team, sports, etc.).. Internships are great, too (work with advocate organizations, attorneys, big law firms — there may be an age and even a grade/GPA requirement for these, but certainly worth a try).

      Also, check out this article on how long does a law degree take? and should I major in Criminal Justice before Law School? — the articles and comments there should have tons of answers to many of your current (and upcoming) questions. Good luck!

  • Regine Adams

    I am a junior in high school. I love the whole idea of becoming a defense attorney. I love to write and debate. Im probably a perfect fit for becoming a defense attorney, but how hard will it be in college? I have a good study habit but I just want to know exactly what it will be like? (Law school and all)

    • Radek M. Gadek

      I’m not going to lie, most students I know find/found law school challenging. Not only did they have to perform well in the undergrad studies, go through the LSAT, and compete with many applicants, they had to give up much of their time — especially in the first year — to immerse themselves in their studies. If you’re passionate about defense law, then this is the perfect career track for you. See my articles for more on law schools:

      Should I Major in Criminal Justice Before Law School?
      How Long Does Law School Take?

      make sure to delve into the comments section for some goodies. Good luck!

  • Ariana jones

    what type of math class should i be taking in High school ?

    • Radek M. Gadek

      standard Math classes should be sufficient: Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry, for example.

  • Drew

    i wanna be a defense attorney, but i also wanted to know the different types of lawyers for all of the crime cases and what they do. also what kind of electives i should take along with all the regular core classes, and what are pros and cons of being a defense lawyer and handling all the nasty cases. thanks so much

    • Lauren McClurg

      Drew,
      I just graduated with a bachelor’s in criminal justice and criminology. I start law school in August. There are so many different types of law that a person can practice it’s unreal. As far as criminal goes, the main one would be a criminal lawyer. Anything that is deemed a crime a criminal lawyer would deal with.

      As far as electives to take, while I was working on my bachelors, I talked to my adviser and a few professors in order to get a better understanding of what I needed to take. I am taking a few computer classes as well as classes that will help with corporate law.

      Being a defense attorney does have its pros and cons. A pro would be that would can either work for a larger company or have your own practice. However, a con would be what if you had to defend someone that you felt was guilty? Could you do it? I know it would be easy to say that you just wouldn’t take the case but there are times where you might not have a choice. If you were working for a larger company or just starting your own, you would have to take every case you could in order to stay afloat.

      I hope you the best with everything that you choose to do! Good luck!

  • Kelly

    What is a good job that i can obtain during college that would be benefit for this career choice?

    • Lauren McClurg

      Working in a law office even as a secretary. I did this while I was in high school and it gave me a better understanding and helped me realize that this was the career path I wanted to go down.

  • Samuel

    I’m a freshman in High School (like several others here) and I’m really interested in becoming a Defense Attorney. I love to debate and I’m great with writing. (though my handwriting could use some work, it’s like chicken scratch) I’m doing a report on the job I want to do, and I need an interview (email, phone, personal or over a website like this.) I was wondering if you could answer a couple of questions:
    1. What is being a lawyer like?
    2. How often do you get to go to court?
    3. Do you enjoy being a lawyer?
    4. What was Law School/College like?
    5. What kind of exam is the bar exam like?
    6. It’ll be 10 years at least before I get to the end of school, can you give me any advice?
    7. Where should I start for getting experience in the field? (what does an assistant for a lawyer do, which college/high school classes should I take other than History/English.)

    Thanks for your time!

  • Erica

    I’m thinking about becoming a juvenile criminal defense lawyer when i get older… I’m doing a career project at school and it seems a juvenile criminal defense lawyer is one of the least popular type of lawyer, meaning I cannot find a lot of information on this type of lawyer… ANY other information about Juvenile criminal defense lawyers or any type of defense lawyers would be helpful! Thank you :)

  • Olivia Lewis

    I’m a sophomore in high school and I have taken debate, algebra 1 and geometry, and am in the midst of taking algebra 2. I have high grades in all my writing classes, including Literature and creative writing, I have also taken a debate class and am currently taking a speech class. I have been recommended by a couple of my teachers and my mom to become a defense attorney, and i am extremely interested. What would be some great colleges to look into?

    • Radek Gadek

      I could name 100 schools without hesitation that have a great law program. However, I’ll leave it to sites like US News and The Princeton Review to give you some recommendations based on school rankings and programmatic rankings. Check them out.

  • Denise

    I am currently a Political Science major at my local Community College but I am CONSIDERING on becoming an Attorney. Law has always fascinated me and to be honest, I am the type of person that will fight tooth and nail to get my point across and prove I am right. I know that when I am right, I am right. When I am wrong, well, I will admit defeat when necessary. Should I change my major to Criminal Justice or should I continue. I only need statistics (which I am currently taking) to transfer out to a 4 year university but before I do, I am taking an Econ class because that as well fascinates me and eventually, someday in the FAR FUTURE, I want to jump into the political arena.

    • Radek Gadek

      Criminal justice might not be the optimal option for an aspiring law student. Run a search on my site for “law school” to see my articles on the subject.

  • leonella

    I’m interested in becoming a juvenile attorney.
    I was wondering which area of study and program of study would be best to choose?

  • Sonia

    Do you have to be a citizen of the U.S in order to become an attorney or be in the criminal justice field?

  • Brian

    Is there a legal provision or requirement that says a defense attorney “must defend his client as a lover defends his beloved”? Thank you.

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