How to Become a

Defense Attorney

The complete career guide to be a Defense Attorney: salary, job growth, employers, best schools, and education you may need to get started.

Why We Love It

  • $136,260
    Potential Avg. Salary
  • 5.6%
    Job Growth Rate
  • Growing Demand
    Job Outlook
  • Deal Making
    Career Attribute

Defense attorneys represent individuals who are bring tried by a government prosecutor for crimes that violate laws. They handle a variety of crimes, from mild offenses like shoplifting to major ones like murder. The lawyer’s goal is to reduce the sentence a client receives or prove the client’s innocence.

Recommended Schools

What is a Defense Attorney?

The following job responsibilities are common for individuals in defense attorney roles:

  • Meet with clients to better understand the events surrounding the accused crime
  • Review evidence, interview witnesses, and collect pieces of information that could prove a client’s innocence or create reasonable doubt
  • Study laws, review similar historical cases and their rulings, and prepare a plan for defense
  • Present arguments in court in front of a judge and/or jury

A Day in the Life

Defense attorneys represent individuals who have been accused of a crime and are being tried by a federal, state, or local government prosecutor for breaking a law. Defense attorneys represent clients who’ve been accused of a variety of offenses: shoplifting, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, assault, drug trafficking, or murder, among others. They prepare cases designed to prove a client’s innocence, create reasonable doubt, or get a client’s likely sentence reduced.

To prepare their cases, defense attorneys perform a variety of tasks. First, they meet with clients to ascertain what the client was doing when the crime occurred, and if the client was involved in any way. Next, the defense attorney reviews all evidence the prosecution plans to use against the client, and the attorney seeks additional evidence that could prove innocence or create reasonable doubt. The attorney also conducts interviews of witnesses of the crime to look for discrepancies in stories.

When a client is reportedly or obviously guilty, the defense attorney often recommends that the client take a plea bargain or make some other deal to reduce the sentence she/she will receive. When a client is innocent, the defense attorney prepares a case to be presented to a judge—and potentially a jury—proving the client’s innocence or calling the prosecution’s evidence into question. Defense attorneys participate in jury selection to find individuals who will be likely to side with the defense in trial.

Typical Work Schedule

Most defense attorneys work full-time schedules, and overtime is common in this role. While the majority of their work is typically completed during normal business hours, they may work evenings or weekends to conduct research, prepare arguments, or meet with clients.

Typical Employers

Many defense attorneys are self-employed and either operate their own practices or share practices with other defense attorneys or lawyers. Others are employed to work for law firms owned by one or more other attorneys, or employed by government offices as public defenders.

Recommended Schools

How To Become a Defense Attorney

The first step in becoming a defense attorney is to earn an undergraduate degree. The type of degree an aspiring defense attorney pursues is flexible because the bulk of his/her law training will occur in graduate school. Popular undergraduate majors for aspiring defense attorneys include political science, English, history, and philosophy. Political science majors tend to be the most common because they focus on providing a thorough education in the legal and political systems of government.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to apply for and be accepted into law school. Law schools are graduate programs that typically take three years to complete and result in a juris doctor (J.D.) degree. After graduating from law school, you’ll need to take the bar exam, offered through the American Bar Association. Passing the bar exam and holding a J.D. degree are common requirements for becoming licensed to practice as a defense attorney in your state.

While it’s possible to begin practicing criminal law independently right out of college, it can be very difficult with few resources and little experience. Instead, most aspiring defense attorneys first take on positions as public defenders, defending individuals who are unable to afford legal counsel. Some also move into prosecutor roles and try accused individuals for some time before moving into private practice. These positions allow aspiring defense attorneys to learn the ins and out of trying criminal cases with a large support network—and plenty of training—before they move in to individual practice.

Defense Attorney Salary Data

We’ve provided you the following to learn more about this career. The salary and growth data on this page comes from recently published Bureau of Labor Statistics data while the recommendations and editorial content are based on our research.

National Anual Salary

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High Range


National Hourly Wage

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High Range


How do Defense Attorney salaries stack up to other jobs across the country? Based on the latest jobs data nationwide, Defense Attorney's can make an average annual salary of $136,260, or $66 per hour. On the lower end, they can make $76,300 or $37 per hour, perhaps when just starting out or based on the state you live in.

Salary Rankings And Facts

  • #22 Nationally for All Careers

  • Above Average Salary Nationally

Programs and Degrees

Here are the most common degrees for becoming a Defense Attorney. a is usually recommended and specifically a degree or coursework that prepares you for the particular field, see below.

Highest Education Among Defense Attorneys

  • 91%   Doctorate
  • 4.1%   Masters
  • 3.5%   Bachelors
  • 0.5%   Associates
  • 0.4%   College
  • 0.4%   High School
  • 0.1%   Less than High School

Job Growth Projections and Forecast

2014 Total Jobs


2024 Est. Jobs


Job Growth Rate


Est. New Jobs


How does Defense Attorney job growth stack up to other jobs across the country? By 2024, there will be a change of 43,800 jobs for a total of 822,500 people employed in the career nationwide. This is a 5.6% change in growth over the next ten years, giving the career a growth rate nationwide of Above Average.

Growth Rankings And Facts

  • #401 Nationally for All Careers

  • Above Avg. Growth Nationally

What Companies Employ The Most Defense Attorneys

Industry Current Jobs New Jobs Needed % Increase
Legal services 376,100 22,100 22%
Self-employed workers 165,500 -1,800 -2%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 55,600 5,300 5%

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