Your Complete Guide on How to Become a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Jan 8, 2019

Jan 8, 2019 • by Rebecca Smith

Have you set your sights on being a criminal defense lawyer?

Smart move!

You'll have the opportunity to join over 1.3 million active lawyers in the country, and this area of specialization will enable you to make a difference in America's criminal justice system. Plus, how does the prospect of earning more than $100,000 every year sound?

To get there, however, you must meet a range of academic and licensing requirements.

Are you ready for the task?

Read on to learn how to become a criminal lawyer.  

Understand the Job of a Criminal Lawyer

It's not uncommon for practicing lawyers to leave the profession. What's surprising is most of those who leave do so because of the long hours, high job pressure and the constant arguing.

To prevent such outcomes, it's vital to understand the job of a criminal defense attorney before taking the next steps. Although a mere description of the typical roles and work environment can't fully paint the life of defense lawyer, it'll give you a rough view of what await you.

On paper, criminal defense lawyers work 9 to 5. In practice, though, this is rarely the case. They often work late into the evening gathering and analyzing evidence, and preparing solid defenses for their clients.

Sometimes a defense lawyer will represent a client who is falsely accused. Other times they represent clients who are guilty of first-degree felonies such murder and human trafficking. The act of representing and defending a guilty criminal can have a profound impact on some defense attorneys.

Does this scare or excite you? If you're excited, you're probably a good fit.

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first real step to becoming a criminal defense lawyer begins in undergraduate school, where you must earn a bachelor's degree.

There's no specific discipline you're required to pursue, but it helps to pick an undergraduate major that's relevant to this profession.

For example, pursuing an undergraduate major in criminology will give you the best preparation for a future career as a criminal lawyer. This is because the program offers classes in areas such as:

  • Criminal law
  • Criminal investigation
  • Research in criminal justice
  • Legal reasoning
  • Law enforcement and administration

As you work on your undergraduate degree, it's advisable to take some public speaking courses, too. Lawyers spend most of their professional lives arguing in front of people, so the earlier your nurture this vital skill, the better your chances of succeeding as a lawyer.

Pass the Law School Admission Test

After earning a bachelor's degree, you're ready to join law school.

Before that, though, there is a hurdle. The Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

Here, all you have to do is apply to take the test and ace it. Be sure to keep tabs on the LSAT website and stay abreast of key dates and deadlines.

The website also provides a range of learning materials, which you should revise to give yourself the best chance of passing the test.

Join Law School and Specialize in Criminal Justice

Passed your LSAT?

Congratulations! You're almost there.

The next step is to join law school and pursue a Juris Doctor (J.D) program.  This is a graduate-entry program that offers courses in various legal areas, such as constitutional law, property law, contract law, and legal writing.

After the first year of law school, go on and specialize in criminal justice. You'll gain extensive knowledge of a range of topics, including drug laws and penalties, terrorism and homeland security, correctional counseling, computer crime, and multicultural issues in law enforcement.

As part of the program requirements, you'll also need to complete an internship. This is an ideal opportunity to gain real-world experience in a criminal defense environment. 

As an intern, you'll likely work under the supervision of a licensed defense attorney and your roles will be limited to research and case analysis. Because you're not licensed yet, don't expect to represent any client in court!

Law school takes three years to complete, and it's important to ensure the school you choose is accredited or recognized by the American Bar Association.

Obtain a License to Practice Law in Your State

The last hurdle to being a lawyer is to obtain a license to practice law in your state. This involves passing the state's bar examination.

In most states, the examination is usually a 2-day process. You'll spend half the time doing written examinations, and the other half being interviewed by your state's bar examiners. Through the oral interview, the examiners are able to assess your character and suitability to practice as a lawyer.

If you pass the written exam and impress the bar, you'll obtain your law license. 

Find Employment  

After conquering the bar, you're ready to find employment and start defending the accused. 

Most fresh lawyers find work in established law firms, but there are also employment opportunities in non-profit organizations such as the ACLU, as well as in federal, state and local justice departments.

After gaining substantial criminal defense experience, you can venture into solo practice and start your own law firm. Or you can join hands with another defense lawyer and establish a two-attorney firm.

That's How to Become a Criminal Lawyer!

Criminal lawyers play a vital role in America's criminal justice system. The country needs more of these lawyers to protect the rights of those facing criminal charges.

By learning how to become a criminal lawyer, you now know all the steps you need to complete in order to join the profession. It can be a long and bumpy road, but with the smarts, determination and a passion for the law, you'll make it.

Good luck, and keep coming back to our blog for more career advice.