Becoming a Defense Attorney: Salary Information & Job Description

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An attorney's median annual salary is around $115,000. Is it worth the education and licensing requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a defense attorney is right for you.
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Pros and Cons in a Career as a Defense Attorney

Defense attorney's often get a harsh reputation due to media scrutiny: defending the accused is not always an easy job and having a client's freedom or future resting on your abilities can be quite stressful. Consider the pros and cons in the following tables when making your decision about becoming a defense attorney.

PROS of Becoming a Defense Attorney
Earning potential is excellent (top pay for lawyers was roughly $187,000 or more as of 2014)*
Can work for a variety of employers, including individuals, companies or the government as public defenders*
Position allows you to stand up to authority on a regular basis and fight for the common man**
Allows you to work with a diverse group of people**

CONS of Becoming a Defense Attorney
Competition for jobs is intense*
Requires seven years of schooling*
Long hours are common, and trials may be stressful*
Your clients may be hostile or despondent **

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Harvard Law School.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a defense attorney, you take the responsibility of protecting your client's constitutional rights and forcing the prosecution to take on the burden of proof in a court of law. You'll meet with clients and advise them of their rights, conduct legal research, participate in jury selection and court trials, and communicate with the court and prosecutor as required. You may work with individuals who are charged with criminal offenses or with clients who are being sued in a civil matter.

One of your main responsibilities is to adhere to legal ethics, which includes maintaining client confidentiality. The majority of your work is done in an office or courtroom, but you may have to travel to meet with witnesses or individuals who will speak in court on behalf of your client. You may have to participate in court trials, but you may also end up settling many cases outside of the courtroom. You can work in a law firm with other lawyers, in your own private practice, for a business or for a government agency.

Career Paths and Specializations

Defense attorneys can be hired by private clients or work as public defenders, working for the government as a court-appointed attorney to defend the rights of people who can't afford legal representation. You may also work for a non-profit agency, helping clients for reduced fees. Another option is to work for a business, such as an insurance company, representing your employer against claims made by customers, clients or others.

Job Growth and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a 10% projected job growth, about as fast as average, for lawyers from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). Jobs in law firms are expected to provide the most opportunities for employment. Competition for lawyer positions is projected to be strong because there will continue to be more law school graduates than there are jobs available during the decade. The BLS reported in May 2014 that the median wage for all types of lawyers across all sectors of the legal industry, public and private, was about $115,000.

Education and Training Requirements

To become a defense attorney, you must complete a minimum of seven years of schooling, including four years to earn a bachelor's degree and three years of law school. There is no specific area of study required for your undergraduate degree; you just need to hold a bachelor's degree in any subject to be accepted into law school. Law school acceptance is also based, in part, on your scores on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

After completing your education, you must pass your state's bar exam. Some states use a multi-state bar exam, but states may have their own exams. Once you have passed the bar exam, you can legally practice law. Generally, you must pass the bar exam in every state you wish to practice law.

In addition to education and licensing, you need to possess some specific skills in order to find success in a career as a defense attorney. Skills or personal qualities required include:

  • High ethical standards
  • Self-confidence
  • Above average research skills
  • Excellent communication skills

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers hiring defense attorneys stated they wanted someone with litigation experience to fill positions advertised in job ads in March 2012. These employers were focused on finding someone who had experience in their field, whether that is insurance defense, criminal law or public defense. The job ads stated:

  • A Texas-based auto insurance company was seeking a lawyer with 5-7 years of experience in the field who also had experience with taking five or more cases to trial.
  • In Arizona, an employer was looking for someone with 3-5 years of experience in criminal law, specifically high-level felony charges, and experience with local judges and prosecutors.
  • A non-profit legal service in North Dakota was filling a public defender position and wanted someone with courtroom experience.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

Employers often want to hire experienced lawyers, so your best chance at standing out from other recent law school graduates when competing for jobs is to gain as much experience as you can while still in school. You can do this through completing internships, volunteering as a legal assistant for a non-profit or completing projects that require a great deal of legal-based research. Also, many law schools sponsor legal clinics or hold moot court competitions. Participating in these activities may help you stand out later when you apply for an entry-level job.

Another way to stand out as a student is to write articles about legal issues for law review journals sponsored by your school. Being selected to serve on your school's law review journal staff is an honor and a good way to distinguish yourself. Additionally, some schools confer awards, such as the CALI Excellence for the Future award, in certain law subjects, and earning these can also enhance your resume.

Alternative Career Paths

Becoming a defense attorney requires a lengthy education process and passing the bar, both of which can be stressful. Both law school and the bar exam are notorious for being difficult. If you want a career that doesn't require as much education and is perhaps a little less stressful to prepare for, then you may consider a career as a paralegal or legal secretary.

Paralegal/Legal Assistant

Paralegals do many of the same tasks as lawyers with two exceptions - they can't provide legal advice and they can't try cases in court. To become a paralegal, you'll probably need at least an associate degree in paralegal studies, and bachelor's degree programs are also available. Some employers will hire entry-level paralegals with no paralegal education and train them, but these candidates usually have a bachelor's degree. Job growth for this field is about average, with an 18% projected increase from 2010-2020.

Legal Secretary

A legal secretary handles clerical and office duties within a legal office. Some of the work may include creating legal documents such as subpoenas, summonses, motions and complaints under the direction of an attorney, reviewing law journals and helping with legal research. You may not be required to have a college degree to get an entry-level legal secretary job, though knowledge of legal terms and practices is useful. The BLS projected a slower than average (4%) job growth for this field from 2010-2020, reflecting the anticipated slow growth of the legal industry during this period.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master: Legal Studies
      • Master: Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
      • Bachelor: Criminal Justice
    Associate's
      • AAS in Legal Support and Services
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
    Certificate
      • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Regent University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
      • Master of Arts in Law - General Legal Studies
      • Master of Arts in Law - Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies
      • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Government
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Organizational Leadership: Criminal Justice
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    4. Saint Leo University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • BA: Criminal Justice
      • BA: Criminal Justice - Criminalistics
    Associate's
      • AA: Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Penn Foster

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Career Diploma - Legal Secretary
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Baker College Online

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • Criminal Justice - Bachelor
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    7. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    High School Diploma
      • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
      • HS Diploma
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Colorado Christian University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Criminal Justice, M.S.
    Bachelor's
      • Criminal Justice, B.S.
    Associate's
      • Criminal Justice, A.S.
  • Stanford, CA

    Stanford University

  • Cambridge, MA

    Harvard University

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Master: Legal Studies
  • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
  • AAS in Legal Support and Services
  • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal

Which subject are you interested in?

Regent University

  • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
  • Master of Arts in Law - General Legal Studies
  • Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies
  • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law

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Northcentral University

  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Criminal Justice

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Saint Leo University

  • BA: Criminal Justice
  • BA: Criminal Justice - Criminalistics
  • AA: Criminal Justice

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Penn Foster

  • Career Diploma - Legal Secretary

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Baker College Online

  • Criminal Justice - Bachelor

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Penn Foster High School

  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
  • HS Diploma

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Colorado Christian University

  • Criminal Justice, M.S.
  • Criminal Justice, B.S.
  • Criminal Justice, A.S.

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