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How to Become a Criminal Lawyer - Step-by-Step Guide

January 11, 2024
6 min read


Reviewed by:

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 01/11/24

If you’re interested in pursuing a career that is sure to keep you on your toes, read on to learn more about how to become a criminal lawyer.

Whether you were inspired to become a criminal defense lawyer after watching How to Get Away With Murder, are an avid true-crime junkie, or simply have a passion for the administration of justice, a career as a criminal defense lawyer can be extremely rewarding and thought-provoking. 

But the journey to becoming a criminal lawyer will be challenging and extensive. To get a better idea of what the journey entails, this guide will go over the steps required to become a criminal lawyer, their daily duties, and their salary.

How to Become a Criminal Defense Lawyer: Steps to Take

While we’re sure you’re excited to dive straight into high-profile criminal cases and fight for justice, getting to your first courtroom will take several years. 

To be exact, it will take at least seven years! Here’s a complete breakdown of what these years will entail and the criminal defense lawyer requirements needed to join this profession:

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

You will have to complete at least two degrees to practice criminal law. The first degree is an undergrad from an accredited university. 

While it may seem like an obvious choice to choose a major in criminology or criminal justice, it’s not necessary to pursue these majors to become a criminal defense lawyer. 

These majors may help you confirm your passion for the subject or help you widen your knowledge, but the truth is,the level of training you’ll receive during your JD won’t compare to your undergrad. As such, there isn’t a perfect degree that can prepare you for the rigors of law school.

Instead of majoring in a program you believe will look best on your application, it’s best to choose a major you have a genuine interest in so you can maintain a high GPA. You should also choose diverse electives to prove your academic talent. 

For instance, you may want to consider taking psychology courses to learn more about human behavior, English courses to hone your writing skills, communications courses to strengthen your argumentative skills, and history courses to learn more about American laws.

Step Two: Gain Useful Experience

In order to get into your top law school choices, it’s essential you have a stellar application. Part of a stellar application is having a full law school resume. While it may be difficult to gain direct legal experience, especially criminal law experience, you should seek opportunities to hone the other skills required of a criminal defense lawyer.

For instance, you’ll be expected to have excellent interpersonal and communication skills as a lawyer, so it would be worthwhile to gain considerable customer service experience. Additionally, you’ll be expected to be a leader in the courtroom, so you should also seek leadership roles.

As the legal field is considered to be part of the service sector, it would also be useful to gain some volunteer experience. 

Step Three: Write the LSAT

Before you begin applying to law school, you’ll have to write the LSAT. This exam is an essential part of the admissions process and will be weighed heavily in the admissions committee’s decision. 

Figure out what your target score is by researching the admission requirements of your top choices and creating an effective study plan that will help you reach this score. Since the LSAT is notorious for being difficult, you should give yourself an adequate amount of time to study for it. 

The majority of students write the LSAT during the summer of their sophomore or junior year to ensure they have enough time to retake the LSAT if necessary.

Step Four: Complete a JD

Once you’ve gotten accepted into your desired law school, you’ll be spending the next three years completing the second degree required to become a criminal lawyer, a JD

Ensure you choose a law school that can provide you with the best resources and opportunities to succeed in criminal law. For instance, you may want to choose a school that allows you to concentrate in criminal law or has a wide range of criminal law courses for you to take.

Additionally, you should pick a law school that allows you to participate in experiential learning opportunities where you can gain hands-on experience working on real criminal law cases. 

Regardless of the law school you choose to attend, ensure you maintain high grades throughout your JD and build strong connections with your peers and professors. These grades and connections will help you in your post-graduation job search. 

You should also spend the summers of your JD pursuing internships, clerkships, or other employment opportunities related to criminal law that can help boost your resume! 

Step Five: Write the MPRE

While you’re still completing your JD, you’ll have to write the MPRE. This exam is required in almost every jurisdiction and ensures you meet the necessary standards of ethics and professional conduct to practice law.

Students typically write this exam during the summer of their second or third year, when they have more time to commit to their studies.

Step Six: Consider an LLM

Once you’ve completed your JD, you have the necessary education to begin practicing as a criminal defense lawyer. However, some criminal defense lawyers choose to also complete an LLM in Criminal Law to gain more specialized training and education. This degree takes around one year to complete.

LLMs in Criminal Law are more commonly pursued by lawyers whose primary goals are to teach or conduct research. 

Step Seven: Pass the Bar Exam

By step seven, you’ve gone through the rigorous seven or eight years of education and training to practice criminal law to the expected standards. As the final step before you can enter a courtroom and take on legal cases, you’ll have to pass the bar exam

It’s important you remain diligent and focused during this last step, as the bar exam is known to be extensive and overwhelming. As such, it will require significant preparation and effort to pass!

What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do?

criminal lawyers meeting

Now that we’ve gone over the question, “how long does it take to become a criminal lawyer?” your next question might be, “what does a criminal lawyer do exactly?” 

The exact duties of a criminal defense lawyer are wide-ranging and depend on the specific cases they are handling. However, in general, criminal defense lawyers perform the following tasks

  • Interview witnesses
  • Analyze police reports and testimonies
  • Perform legal research involving statutes, case law, crime codes, and procedural law
  • Examine crime scenes
  • Create exhibits for demonstrations in courtrooms
  • Create case strategies and build a defense
  • Negotiate for lesser sentencing or plea bargains
  • Draft, file, or fight for motions that are either lessened or dropped
  • Push for felonies to be moved to misdemeanor charges

These broad tasks are applied to specific cases that typically involve these types of crimes:

  • Kidnapping
  • Victim’s rights
  • Assault and battery
  • Driving Under the influence
  • Homicide
  • Self-defense
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Criminal appeals
  • Drug possession
  • Domestic violence

While all of the cases criminal defense lawyers handle tend to fall into the aforementioned categories, no case is identical to another! Each case will differ vastly from the rest, which is what makes this career both highly interesting and challenging! 

Tips for Getting a Criminal Lawyer Degree

graduates throwing caps in air

Securing your criminal law degree demands unwavering dedication, hard work, and strategic planning. Here are essential tips to ensure a seamless journey towards your dream career:

Maintain High Grades In Your Undergrad

To ensure you have access to the best resources, education, and opportunities, you’ll want to get into a top law school. Top law schools are highly competitive, which means you’ll need to impress the admissions committee with a strong GPA!

Dedicate Time to Your LSAT Prep

You should also position yourself as a competitive applicant by attaining a high score on the LSAT. Serious and thorough preparation over several months is key. While retaking the LSAT is an option, aiming to ace it on the first attempt is the optimal strategy.

Gain Valuable Volunteer and Work Experience

Your resume should have meaningful extracurriculars on it. Aspiring criminal defense lawyers should actively engage in volunteer work to highlight qualities such as empathy, leadership, a broad understanding of diverse perspectives, a strong commitment to social justice, and the desire to make a positive impact on others.

You may also want to pursue related work experience, like an internship with non-profit organizations committed to enhancing social justice.

Criminal Lawyer Salary and Job Outlook

man celebrating at computer

An important factor to consider when discussing how to become a criminal defense lawyer is your job outlook and expected salary.

While lawyers are expected to see a 10% job increase over the next decade, the competition to become a criminal defense lawyer will be intense! This legal specialty is common among law students and there are limited job openings available each year. 

That being said, the average salary of a criminal defense lawyer is $92,575 a year, which means they make less than the majority of lawyers working in other specialties. The average salary for lawyers in other occupations is $135,740. 

However, criminal defense lawyers can increase their earning potential depending on their experience and location. 

FAQs: Becoming a Criminal Lawyer

For any remaining questions about this legal profession, read on to find your answers.

1. Is Criminal Law Hard?

Yes, pursuing a career in criminal law will be challenging! 

Not only will it be difficult to get into law schools, which are known to be highly competitive, but finding a career post-graduation will be even more competitive. Once you have landed a job as a criminal lawyer, you can expect to continue learning on the job. 

As a criminal defense lawyer, your job will be unpredictable! You’ll have to defend clients when it seems impossible, know all of the rules and laws that relate to each case, and be able to convince a jury of a client’s innocence, even when you know in your heart they’re guilty! 

It’s a stressful and high-pressure job, but it is well worth the outcome of protecting your clients’ rights and ensuring justice is upheld.

2. How Long Does It Take to Become a Criminal Lawyer?

It will take at least seven years to join this profession. Four of these years will involve completing an undergraduate degree and three will involve completing a JD. For those interested in further advancing their training, you may also pursue an LLM, which will take an additional year to complete.

3. Which Major Is Best for Criminal Law?

There is no perfect pre-law major for criminal law. While many students opt for a BA in Criminology or Criminal Justice, it’s best to pursue a major you’re interested in to increase your chances of maintaining a high GPA. You should also gain experience in multiple disciplines to hone a range of skills that will prove valuable in law school. 

4. Do Criminal Lawyers Get Paid a Lot?

In comparison to other lawyers, criminal defense lawyers are paid less. However, they still typically make over $90,000 a year and can make even more depending on their location and experience.

5. Where Are Criminal Lawyers Paid the Most?

Criminal lawyers are paid the most in California, where the average salary for lawyers is $176,610. 

6. Where Do Criminal Lawyers Work?

Criminal defense lawyers typically work for private or public firms, governmental organizations, nonprofit agencies, or academic institutions. 

7. How Much Will Becoming a Criminal Lawyer Cost? 

While you’ll be earning a high salary once you graduate law school, there are significant costs associated with earning a JD.

Tuition alone averages over $40,000 annually, and for renowned law schools, this figure can surpass $70,000. When factoring in additional expenses, you can expect the total cost of your legal education to exceed $150,000. This figure doesn’t include the cost of your undergrad, which can add $40,000 to over $200,000 to your total.

Final Thoughts

After learning how to join the criminal law field and the hard work it’ll require, you should be able to decide if this career is right for you and if you have what it takes to become a real-life Annalise Keating! 

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