What is a Defense Attorney?

Defense AttorneyA defense attorney is a lawyer who represents a person who is being sued in a court of law; i.e., the accused party in a civil or criminal lawsuit. Defense attorneys are responsible for giving those accused of breaking the law fair representation in the court system. Typically, defense attorneys begin as prosecutors, who are lawyers that work for the state representing the interest of a victim. Read on to learn more about the life of a defense attorney in the U.S.

Becoming a Defense Attorney

Regardless of the type of lawyer you’d like to become, the first step is to get accepted into law school. When you decide on which school to attend, you should pick one with elective courses that will help you prepare for becoming a criminal defense attorney. For example, look for courses that cover criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence, and trial advocacy. When you apply for clerkships, consider working for a criminal defense attorney or for a state prosecutor’s office or public defender’s office. This will give you the experience you need as well as contacts in the field, which will help you break into this area of law.

Public vs. Private Defenders

While the idea many people have of a defense lawyer is a high-profile, high-paid attorney, the reality is that many in this field work as public defenders. These attorneys are appointed by the state to represent those who are unable to afford a lawyer and are accused of a crime. While this job can be quite difficult, paying your dues as a public defender can help you earn the experience you need to strike out on your own as a private attorney.

Choosing a Niche

Many criminal defense attorneys specialize in clients who have committed a particular crime. For example, you may work for a firm that deals only with people who have been accused of driving while intoxicated. Knowing the ins-and-outs of these niches can help you decide where your expertise lies. When you’re searching for jobs, contact criminal defense firms in your area about internship opportunities. The more time you spend shadowing existing attorneys, the better chance you have of succeeding in the field.

Salary and Job Outlook

While salaries for attorneys vary widely depending on whether you’re a public or private defender and your area of expertise, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that attorneys make an average annual salary of about $115,000. Attorneys who work for local government, which is often where defense attorneys start out, make an average of $87,140 per year. While there are projected to be 74,800 new law jobs by 2022, keep in mind that law schools graduate many more attorneys than there are open positions each year, so competition can be fierce.

Related Resource: Criminology

To learn more about becoming a defense attorney, visit the Occupational Outlook Handbook.  You can also consult the American Bar Association, which maintains resources for lawyers and law students.