I Want to be a Criminal Defense Lawyer


QI am a junior in college, at a good (well reputable) private, liberal arts school, considering law school. I have friends who want to go to law school because it looks good, others because they don’t know what to do, others still that want to delay their inevitable entry into the real world, I, however, want to go to law school to practice law (at least I think I do).

I enjoy the show Law and Order (ok I know this isn’t much but law interests me), have several friends whose parents are attorneys (they seem interesting and happy), enjoy reading and writing, like being in school, and am fond of and good at helping people solve problems.  Further, I have a firm belief (based on my personal experience) that not all people accused of crimes are guilty. I want to help those people (and even the guilty ones) better their situation. That’s right, I said it, I want to be a criminal defense attorney (and work with juveniles as a criminal attorney/legal advocate as well).

I don’t want to make a lot of money although I want to own a house, put my kids through college, maybe have a sports car some day, etc. I don’t mind working hard (if it is something I enjoy I even like it) and I don’t have aspirations to work for a big law firm. I would be very happy in a medium sized firm in the Seattle, WA area eventually earning enough money to retire and die someplace warm. I think this will require me to be earning (during my top earning years) $150,000-200,000/year.

I won’t be the brightest guy in law school, but I won’t be far behind (I know, with some work, I could be in the top half), and my grades are good enough to get into a second tier law school (top 50). I will be looking at taking out loans to the tune of $120,000. Am I out of my mind to expect the lifestyle mentioned above? Are my chances in law (especially with the economy now) dismal at best? I would appreciate a healthy-helping of that honest advice you are good at dishing out. Thank you!!

AYou might be the first person ever to have expressed a genuine, credible reason for wanting to go to law school! Good on ya, lad!

With that said, here’s my healthy-helping of honest advice: Go to law school! You WANT to be a lawyer. You want to practice criminal law and help the wrongfully accused, disadvantaged, etc. That’s as good a reason as any. In fact, it’s a helluva lot better than most reasons to go to law school.

Having said that, there are some things to consider. One, young criminal defense lawyers don’t make much money. Most start in the Public Defender’s office where the starting pay, depending on where you live, is between 25K and 50K. So don’t expect to make 150-200K for quite some time – or to pay off those student loans until your fifty or so. To make big money in criminal law, you need a big-time reputation and lots of well-heeled criminal clients. Think white-collar crime, my brother. That’s where the money is.

If you love what you do, the money will ultimately take care of itself. Whether you eventually make 100K or 300K, that’s impossible to handicap at the moment. The real question is simply this: Do you want to be a lawyer? If the answer is yes, go for it.

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

25 Comments

  1. Stunned

    July 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

    I never thought I’d read a question from someone who really belongs in law school.

  2. Sienna

    July 27, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I wanted to be a public interest lawyer until I realized that all the Harvard/Yale grads were taking all the jobs! Good Luck!

  3. Shawn

    July 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Wow! Thanks so much for posting this. I’ve been wanting to to go law school for years but life has a way of taking detours.
    I _really_ want to go into CD because I see so many bad lawyers out there–all around, not just criminal.
    Planning on taking the LSAT in Dec. *sighs* About time, I suppose.

  4. Kilroy

    July 27, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Please talk to an actual criminal defense attorney first. First thing they will tell you is that all defendants are guilty and usually lying to them.  10% of your clients will take up 90% of your time, and they won’t pay you. You’ll spend half your time trying to track down clients for court and the other half trying to track them down to get them to pay you.  Young prosecutors that don’t know anything will still beat you up in court because they have the power of the state behind them.  You’ll quickly become depressed and realize that you should have just stayed in school.
    - Been there, done that.

    • Me

      April 17, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      Well aren’t you just a freakin’ ray of sunshine?

  5. Me

    July 27, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I have to agree with Kilroy. 99% of your clients are guilty! Good Luck getting paid! I think your attitude will change after your first year of law school.

  6. Don't Be A Fool

    July 27, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Even attorneys in private practice CD often make less than $100k if you’re not running your own firm – and they work like dogs.  Granted, you’ll likely be in court a lot, unlike the majority of the BigLaw kids, but you’ll be making less than half of what they do, and most of them are STILL miserable.

  7. frank

    July 27, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    This is terrible advice.  This kid shouldn’t go to law school unless he gets a whole lot of scholarship money and can come out with no debt.  Otherwise…go work for a nonprofit

  8. Frat Guy Law Type

    July 28, 2010 at 5:58 am

    Go to law school as cheaply as possible.  There’s some balancing to be done, sure, but the more debt you have, the less choice you have in jobs you can take when you get out.

  9. CDL

    July 28, 2010 at 6:14 am

    Criminal defense is a business, like any other type of practice.  Your client base will be completely different.  Take money up front, keep it in your trust account and pay yourself afterwards – you’ll never worry about chasing down a fee again.  Doing so also lets you focus only on the clients who have paid you and not ten deadbeats who expect something for nothing.
    Be prepared to cope with some of the worst human behavior imaginable.  You will get great cocktail party stories for sure, but you will also see, hear and experience things that will haunt you for years.
    All criminal defense lawyers lose cases – some that should be lost and some that shouldn’t.  The personalities and peculiarities involved in each case sometimes make results unpredictable.  For my money, though, there is no better feeling in the world than being in court every day, trying cases and getting those wins – even when you shouldn’t.  No other field of practice compares.

  10. JD JD

    July 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    #1 Law school education always opens more doors than they close.

    #2 Many criminal defense attorneys gain valuable experience either as young county prosecutors or public defenders.

    #3 MANY OF THOSE OFFICES participate in programs which pay off the law school debts of their attorneys who stick with those jobs for a set number of years.

  11. JD JD

    July 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    #1 Law school education always opens more doors than they close.

    #2 Many criminal defense attorneys gain valuable experience either as young county prosecutors or public defenders.

    #3 MANY OF THOSE OFFICES participate in programs which pay off the law school debts of their attorneys who stick with those jobs for a set number of years.

  12. JD JD

    July 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    #1 Law school education always opens more doors than they close.

    #2 Many criminal defense attorneys gain valuable experience either as young county prosecutors or public defenders.

    #3 MANY OF THOSE OFFICES participate in programs which pay off the law school debts of their attorneys who stick with those jobs for a set number of years.

  13. manda

    July 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    for what it’s worth, i have had many criminal defense attorneys say that criminals are the best clients.  and don’t worry about not getting paid; if you aren’t paid, up front, you don’t need to enter your appearance.
    life isn’t like law and order, though.  you need to talk to someone who actually does it.

  14. Laura

    July 29, 2010 at 2:47 am

    I wanted to be in Criminal Law, after I watched Law and Order.  I always thought I was just as pretty as Angie Harmon, so that I could also go in to court and impress the judge.  Then I decided to do commercial law, because I had a better chance of finding a husband than I would at the county jail.

  15. BL1Y

    July 29, 2010 at 4:35 am

    Kilroy is right. I volunteered at a PD office for a while, and the vast majority of our clients were guilty.  Most of them admitted guilt to us.  The rest were liars.  Criminal defense isn’t what you see on TV.  It’s 95% felony DUI and drug possession.  You won’t be defending the Scottsboro Boys or collecting Matlock’s $100,000 fee.

  16. quado

    July 29, 2010 at 4:40 am

    Just do DUI defense.  $3k on the low end and about 2 hours in a court room.  It’s boilerplate forms, and you just have to get your clients to do a little rehab.  Take about 3-4 of those a week and you’ll be doing very well.

  17. Texjudge

    July 29, 2010 at 11:40 am

    excellent advice and some good comments. I found the vast majority of criminal lawyers- prosecutors and defense- to be hard working and ethical. There is no bill-padding and obsession with typos like in Biglaw. You won’t make a lot of money but you will have a life.

  18. prog

    July 29, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Let’s get something perfectly clear here – 90% of the time you will be representing guilty people.  There’s no two ways about it.  At best, you might be able to focus on people with drug charges or prostitution charges where you can tell yourself they don’t deserve to go to jail.  But disabuse yourself of the notion that there are enough wrongfully accused people out there to even barely support a practice.
    Most of the of the criminal defense attorneys I know are actually either solo attorneys or work in small boutique firms.  There’s a lot of things you can do as a criminal defense attorney besides work as a public defender.  I know people who got a lot of their early work just doing court appearances for other attorneys who were super busy with caseloads and charging an hourly rate.  Other things I’ve seen are people doing hourly pro-se counseling, where you aren’t actually retained as counsel you simply give them an hour or two worth of advice on the procedural and practical issues and charge them a flat fee.
    You will definitely need to get started interning in a PDs office at soon as possible and for your whole tenure in law school.  But once you are out you don’t necessarily need to be a public defender.  The boutique firms that I saw usually have a low base pay (around 60k) but offer lots of bonuses for results.  If you do want to be a PD, some of the offices in big cities pay up to 75k a year starting.

  19. Brett

    July 30, 2010 at 5:09 am

    My Wife:  “How do you know when your defendant’s are lying to you?”
    Me:  “Well…usually their lips are moving.”

  20. San Francisco

    July 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Well, I have some experience being a defendent accused of a crime that I never committed.  It sux.  The charges were dropped, but I was booked/charged/accused and now have a criminal record, but shows that charges were dropped.
    I did nothing, I was falsely accused of something I did not do.  And yeah, NO ONE believes you.  Family sure as hell don’t, no one.  I do believe that my lawyer genuinely believed I was innocent, due to my clean, conservative past, the person that I am ,etct.  I do believe that he thought I was innocent and he fought for that.  He was a godsend.
    So, yeah, everyone does think you are guilty and that follows the accused for life.  F-ing sux.

  21. BL1Y

    July 30, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    90% of people who were arrested for a crime they didn’t commit are guilty.

  22. Michael D. Cicchini

    July 31, 2010 at 8:55 am

    I have been a criminal defense lawyer for over eight years now.  I can tell you that a large percentage of people who are accused of crimes are NOT guilty of the crime charged, and often are not guilty of anything at all.  I’ve handled hundreds of cases – many dismissed, many resolved for far lower charges, etc.  I’ve also won full acquittals on over half of my jury trials.  In today’s hyper vigilant, tough-on-crime world, plenty of innocent people get ensnared in our justice system.  (That’s NOT to say that criminal defense lawyers should judge their clients and only defend those that they perceive to be innocent.  That’s not our job, nor is it a good idea.) As for more practical advice, consider going to a less “prestigious” school on a full scholarship and come out with no debt.  That way, you won’t have to worry about how much money you make.  For criminal defense work, the US News rank doesn’t mean much at all.  Also, consider working for yourself.  That’s what I do, and I couldn’t work for anyone ever again.  To learn more about the type of work and cases you get as a solo practitioner, visit my web site at http://www.CicchiniLaw.com.  Best of luck to you.

  23. pub defender

    July 31, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    I’ve been a public defender for the last 5 years. (in Washington) I love it.  I love the clients, I love the trial work, but most of all I love the camaraderie of an office full of people who stand united together against the state.  The money is not great but then again I am fortunate to not only be frugal but to be married to an income earning professional. 

    You will never make big bucks as a Pub defender, so to make the dough you will have to go into private practice.  In private practice your ability to succeed often depends MORE on your ability to build business then you ability to perform in a court room.  There are plenty of hack criminal defense lawyers who make lots of money and do shit work, but remain successful because they consistently get clients. 

    Additionally, you can be a great court attorney but if you can’t build business you will never have a good practice.

    Oh, and about defending the guilty, that’s easy, the hardest and scariest part of the job is defending the innocent.  Because when that happens you MUST win.
    Good Luck

  24. Sup

    August 2, 2010 at 7:41 am

    This kid should also take note of the government/IBR program that schools have now.  If you work in public service for 10 years, your federal student loans will be paid off (that’s the advertisement anyway – there’s no money in the program right now). 
    Plus, on an income-based-repayment (IBR) schedule, your loan payment will only end up being an amount proportional to his income – which means he could end up paying something insanely low like $200 a month for ten years.  After that ten years, his fed loans are forgiven.

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