How to Become a Defense Attorney

Defense Attorney Key Stats
Avg. Salary / year $127,910
Avg. Pay / hour $61.49
Education 4+ Years
Job Outlook 6%

A Defense Attorney is a highly educated professional that is responsible for using their legal knowledge and experience to defend individuals who have been accused of a crime.

These individuals may work in a variety of settings and industries providing representation for individuals who need the proper legal help.

Individuals who want to become a Defense Attorney will have a strong passion for the legal system, be well versed with the written language and have strong debating and communication skills.

Education Requirements to Become a Defense Attorney

Individuals who want to become a Defense attorney will need several years of education after high school in order to enter this profession.

Individuals will need to complete an undergraduate degree, attend an accredited law school, pass the bar exam and have work experience in order to be successful in this field.

Although there is not a specific major an individual needs to study in order to become a Defense Attorney, certain majors and courses can benefit an individual when applying for law schools.

Some useful areas of study include: English, Economics, government, public speaking, history, philosophy and mathematics.

Once an individual has completed their undergraduate degree in a major such as Philosophy, Political Science or English, they will need to take an entrance exam in order to apply to a law school and become a Defense Attorney.

The majority of accredited law schools require that individuals take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) which measures an individual’s ability to study law.

Please visit the Law School Admission’s website for more information on the LSAT.

Once an individual is accepted into a law school, it will take approximately 3 years to complete this graduate degree and earn a juris doctor (J.D.).

A typical law school curriculum will include a variety of courses such as: legal writing, civil procedure, property law, contracts and constitutional law.

Students also have the opportunity to choose specialized courses.

Individuals who would like to become a Defense Attorney will need to specialize in a criminal defense law education.

After graduating from an accredited law program, individuals will need to pass an entrance exam in order to practice law.

This is typically referred to as the bar exam which is a comprehensive exam that tests an individual’s legal knowledge.

Bar exams are administered by local jurisdictions and states.

Individuals will need to contact their state for more information on how to secure a license.

Defense Attorney Job Description

Defense Attorneys typically work a 40 hour work week although they may work irregular hours to be able to meet with clients during evenings or weekends.

Defense Attorneys may work for private law firms or for states representing individuals without access to an attorney.

A Defense Attorney’s main duties are broken up into preparation and representation in the courtroom.

During the preparation stage, a Defense Attorney will review all the evidence, laws and statutes as well as perform research in order to prepare an argument for the courtroom.

Once all the preparation and arguments have been established, a Defense Attorney will use this information to represent their client in court to help find them innocent or to settle on lesser charges.

The suggestion a Defense Attorney will recommend all depends on the evidence gathered during the investigation stage.

Defense Attorney Salary and Career Path

In 2012, the median annual wage for attorneys in all industries was approximately $113,530.

Exact wages will depend on the level of experience, amount of clients, whether an individual owns their own practice and the industry an individual works in.

For example, an attorney working for the federal government can expect a median annual salary of $134,690 while an individual who works in legal services can expect to earn approximately $116,630 per year.

The job outlook for all attorneys is expected to grow at an average rate of 10 percent through the year 2022.

The demand for legal services will not grow as much as other industries.

This growth coupled with a large number of graduates will cause some competition among candidates.

However, individuals who seek opportunities at larger firms will have better opportunities as they are the largest employers for attorneys.

Individuals who are interested in a Defense Attorney career path will find that there are many benefits to joining this field.

Whether it’s representing individuals who can’t afford an attorney to finding a career at a large firm, Defense Attorneys have a variety of opportunities in this field.

BLSThe below information is based on the 2021 BLS national averages.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

National Average Salary


Average Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
Delaware- NA -
District of Columbia$198,820
New Hampshire$124,230
New Jersey$153,800
New Mexico$116,220
New York$179,060
North Carolina$131,960
North Dakota$107,190
Rhode Island$148,770
South Carolina$107,780
South Dakota$100,100
West Virginia$107,380
Puerto Rico$67,350
Virgin Islands- NA -

The top earning state in the field is District of Columbia, where the average salary is $198,820.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

District of Columbia - $198,820
New York - $179,060
California - $176,610
Massachusetts - $167,980
New Jersey - $153,800
* Salary information based on the May 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Lawyers, OCC Code 23-1011, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a defense attorney do?

A defense attorney (a criminal defense attorney, a public defender or a criminal lawyer) is a licensed professional who defends individuals, entities, and organizations that have been charged with a crime.

The specialist can handle a wide range of criminal cases – violent crimes, domestic violence crimes, theft, fraud, embezzlement, drug crimes, driving under the influence, and so on.

A defense attorney represents the defendant in state, federal, and appellate courts.

The typical responsibilities of a professional usually include researching case law, statutes, procedural law, and criminal codes; investigating the case and interviewing witnesses; building a defense and developing a case strategy; advocating for the defendant at trial, etc.

How much do defense attorneys make?

On average, a defense attorney can make a little less than $80.000 per year in the United States.

In case you decide to choose this career path, you can expect to earn anywhere between $47.000 and $176.000 annually.

The salary would certainly depend on a variety of factors – your education and experience level, the location and so on.

Defense attorneys that work in Massachusetts, New York, and California, for example, have the highest average salaries.

An entry-level defense attorney can earn around $19.00 per hour, while a top-level professional with plenty of experience can make $302.00 and more per hour.

How much does it cost to become a defense attorney?

You would certainly need a bachelor’s degree, in order to become a defense attorney (in any major).

A year in a university can cost you anywhere between $8.000 and $45.000 (and more); the cost depends on a variety of factors (the books, supplies, and accommodation expenses are not included).

Aspiring defense attorneys would then be required to take an entrance exam (Law Schools Admission Test); it will cost you over $180, however, you might want to invest in study guides and practice tests.

You should then apply to a law school (around $26.000-$43.000) and earn a Juris Doctor degree (with a specialization in criminal defense law).

After graduating, future defense attorneys take the bar exam (about $6.700).

What is the demand for defense attorneys?

Between 2018 and 2028, the lawyer job market (including defense attorneys) is expected to grow by 6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That is close to the average for all occupations in the United States.

Bear in mind that the competition in the field is extremely high.

The industry is mainly concentrated in New York, California, and Florida.

How long does it take to become a defense attorney?

It will take you 4 years to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

It is recommended that students spend 150-300 hours on the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) prep.

If your scores are high enough, you will be accepted to law school; be prepared to spend at least 3 years as a full-time student.

The bar prep course can take you around 2 months.

Jamie Willis
Career Specialist at BecomeopediaHi, my name is Jamie Willis, and I have been helping students find their perfect internships and education paths for the last ten years. It is a passion of mine, and there really is nothing better than seeing students of mine succeed with further studies.

One thought on “How to Become a Defense Attorney

  1. Alice Carroll says:

    Thanks for also talking about how a lot of research goes into the the work of a defense attorney. I’m interested in looking for a good defense attorney soon because I’m interested in helping a friend get legal representation soon. His business is currently under investigation because of some issue involving fraud.

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