How Do I Become a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

C. Mitchell

Becoming a criminal defense lawyer usually requires a combination of education, experience, and dedication. Earning a law degree is the biggest hurdle, but it is only the first step. You must also pass your jurisdiction’s bar exam and secure a job representing those accused of committing crimes before you can become a criminal defense lawyer.

Criminal defense attorneys won't gain experience filing lawsuits, bankruptcies or divorces.
Criminal defense attorneys won't gain experience filing lawsuits, bankruptcies or divorces.

Criminal defense lawyer training starts in law school in nearly every country in the world. The specifics of the law school system vary from place to place, but the curriculum is almost always taught at the graduate level, and admission is usually competitive. If you know that you want to become a criminal defense lawyer before you go to law school, apply selectively to programs with strong criminal law course offerings.

Criminal defense lawyers take courses in ciminal law, procedure, and social justice.
Criminal defense lawyers take courses in ciminal law, procedure, and social justice.

Law schools rarely ever allow students to specialize, and there is no such thing as a “major” as in most undergraduate programs. In this sense, the school you go to will not have any real bearing on whether or not you can become a criminal defense lawyer. Graduates generally leave school with a general degree that can be used to practice in any area of law.

Students can tailor their education to certain practice areas by selectively choosing their electives. There are no fixed criminal defense lawyer requirements, but taking a lot of criminal procedure, criminal law, and social justice courses is generally recommended. All law schools offer these courses, but some have stronger programs than others.

Criminal defense work usually involves shepherding defendants through all aspects of a criminal charge, from arraignment to conviction or acquittal. Lawyers in this practice area must usually be quick on their feet as well as good at research. In school, seek out moot court opportunities and brief writing competitions to hone your skills.

Many schools also offer advocacy programs and clinics that pair law students with practicing defense attorneys or public service organizations. Participating in these sorts of extracurricular activities will help you develop your own knowledge and may also put you in contact with future employers. During the summers, look for work in criminal defense law firms or seek out internships with judges or public defenders.

Broad job experience will not only help your resume, it will also help you hone your interests and decide exactly what kind of work you want to do once you become a criminal defense lawyer. There are many different kinds of criminal defense lawyer careers. In a private law firm, your focus will be on mounting defenses on behalf of hand-picked, sometimes wealthy clients. You may also choose to work for the government as a public defender, representing defendants who cannot otherwise afford representation. Legal aid societies are another option, and defense lawyers in this setting often help mount appeals or defend claims brought against underprivileged, often indigent clients.

Upon graduation form law school, it is often easiest to become a criminal defense lawyer for the government. This job may not pay well, but the experience is often quite valuable. Many criminal defense lawyers get their start in the public sector and move into private practice once they have an established record and a cache of marketable, demonstrable skills.

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