What Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Do? - Duties & Responsibilities

Discover the job duties and responsibilities of a criminal defense lawyer. Find out how much you might make, what education you need and how to become licensed. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information at a Glance

Criminal defense lawyers, also known as defense attorneys, represent clients who have been accused of a crime. They must complete a bachelor's degree, finish law school and pass a licensing exam in order to practice. The chart below offers a few more details on the profession.

Degree Required Doctoral
Education Field of Study Law
Key Skills Writing, speaking, persuasiveness
Licensure Required Must pass the bar exam
Job Growth (2016-2026) 8% (for all lawyers)*
Median Salary (2017) $119,250 per year (for all lawyers)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Are the Job Duties of a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

The legal system is so complex that most people can't navigate it on their own. That's where criminal defense lawyers come in. They understand the intricacies of the system so they can take up the legal battle for people who are accused of committing a crime. To do this, they may speak with the defendant to get his or her side of the story, conduct extensive investigations into what actually happened, interview witnesses or people peripheral to the case and prepare a defense to present to the court.

Lawyers may also advise their clients on how to proceed in their legal predicament. Depending on the case, that might mean pleading guilty, working with the courts on a plea bargain or going to trial.

Why Are Criminal Defense Lawyers' Responsibilities Important?

Lawyers often find themselves at the sharp end of jokes, but in representing the individual against the system, they provide an invaluable service to society. They make sure that the person accused of a crime is afforded the due process and consideration promised to them in our country's legal codes. Their job is often to ensure that the marginalized and defenseless have the same power in front of a judge and jury as the most privileged members of society.

How Do You Become a Lawyer?

Aspiring criminal defense lawyers must go to school for four years to earn a bachelor's degree before enrolling in a law school that's accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Law school typically takes around three years to complete, so would-be attorneys are looking at around seven years of learning. All lawyers must take and pass a 'bar exam' in order to get a license in their state. The admitting board of the bar will also examine the applicant's life and character to decide if he or she can practice law. Any previous convictions, drug use or ethical red flags could mean disqualification.

How Much Can You Make Practicing Law?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median salary for all lawyers in May 2017 was $119,250 per year. Attorneys who run their own law practices typically make less than those who work for businesses or law firms. Most lawyers work full time and a good number log over 40 hours a week.

What's the Job Outlook for Lawyers?

The legal profession is considered quite competitive, but employment is still expected to rise in the coming years. According to the BLS, legal occupations (paralegals, legal assistants, lawyers) are set to rise by 9% between 2016 and 2026. When you focus just on lawyers (all lawyers, not just criminal defense), the BLS expects a rise of 8% during the same time period.

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