Criminal Defense Attorney: Job Description & Requirements

Nov 24, 2021

What is a Criminal Defense Attorney?

Criminal defense lawyers represent clients or organizations who have been accused of criminal misconduct. Those employed by the government are known as public defenders. A criminal defense lawyer researches, prepares and argues a case on the behalf of a client in order to defend them from the criminal charges.

Job Description

Criminal defense lawyers typically work at least 40 hours a week, but longer hours are common. Additionally, work hours may be irregular because evenings and weekends may be required by clients or law firms. New criminal defense lawyers usually join up with an existing firm; however many go on to open up their own firms. Criminal defense lawyers regularly travel to courtrooms, law libraries, prisons, hospitals, offices and the homes of clients.

Research and case preparation are the two main duties performed outside of actual trials. Criminal defense lawyers examine evidence, laws and statues, and past judicial rulings in order to build up the strength of their arguments. Once all this research is gathered, a criminal defense lawyer prepares it by creating an effective argument strategy for the courtroom. When in the courtroom, a criminal defense lawyer must constantly adapt and choose the most effective argumentative methods available to them in order to win a case.

How to Become a Defense Attorney

So, what does it take to become a criminal lawyer? Like all attorneys, criminal defense attorneys must:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree
  2. Complete three years of law school, specializing in criminal defense
  3. Take the state bar exam


What are the criminal justice lawyer education requirements and how many years to become a criminal lawyer? Seven years of education are required to be a criminal defense lawyer. Four years are spent at the undergraduate level. The specific major of the bachelor's degree an aspiring criminal defense lawyer earns isn't typically important, but maintaining good grades and acquiring research, investigative, analysis and communication skills are recommended.

After graduating, an aspiring criminal defense lawyer applies to law school by completing the Law School Admission Test. Then, three years of education are completed in a criminal defense law education specialization that results in the J.D. degree.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all criminal defense lawyers need to be licensed with the state ( To be admitted to the bar association, a written examination is completed in addition to an ethics examination. There is no nationwide bar examination, but the majority of states use the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE).


For licensure, the states that don't use the MBE normally use the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE). The MBE is a six-hour examination while the MEE is a three-hour test. The qualifications for most bar examinations include possessing a college degree and graduating from a law program accredited by the American Bar Association.

Defense Attorney Career Outlook and Salary

The job of a criminal defense lawyer can pay well and may be prestigious, but the work is often stressful. In May of 2019, the BLS reported that the median annual wage for all lawyers was $122,960. Furthermore, the BLS predicts a job growth for lawyers of 4% for the time period of 2019 to 2029, about as fast as average for all occupations.

Criminal defense attorneys may work for a law firm or begin their own law firm, and can expect to work long hours, particularly when preparing for court proceedings. Their job involves research and case preparation that may include visiting prisons, hospitals, law libraries and other venues relevant to the case they're working on. After they've conducted an investigation of the factors involved in their case they determine the best strategy for court and then utilize that strategy during the trial.

Summary of Criminal Defense Lawyer Career

Required Education Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree
Licensing Must pass state bar exam
Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)* 4% (for all types of lawyers)
Median Salary (2019)* $122,960 (for all types of lawyers)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

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