Definition: “Criminal Defense Lawyer”

A criminal defense lawyer is someone who has been admitted to practice law by the bar of a particular jurisdiction.  The “bar” of a particular jurisdiction is essentially an association that grants licenses to attorneys.  This license, like other professional licenses, gives an attorney the ability to practice their profession.

Specifically, criminal defense lawyers act as the legal representatives of a defendant in a court of criminal law.

Most importantly, criminal defense lawyers work on behalf of criminal defendants to achieve the best possible outcome for a defendant’s case.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can a Criminal Defense Attorney Defend Someone That They Know is Guilty?

Yes, a criminal defense attorney can still defend someone that they know is guilty. That doesn’t mean they MUST defend someone that they know is guilty; private attorneys can refuse any case or client so long as they aren’t discriminatory.

There are several reasons why a criminal defense attorney might choose to defend someone that they know is guilty. For starters, attorneys are less concerned with what their clients did, and more concerned with what the government can prove they did. Their job isn’t to pass moral judgment, but to defend their clients to the best of their ability. 

Knowledge of guilt (or innocence) does not charge an attorney’s duty to work diligently in their client’s favor. Even in situations where the prosecution has an ironclad case against a defendant, good criminal defense attorneys still have a role to play. They can try to strike an agreeable plea deal, or fight to have felony charges reduced to misdemeanor charges.

What is Considered “Confidential Information” Between You and Your Attorney?

Just about anything you say to your attorney can be considered “confidential information.” That’s right: if you and your attorney discuss a legal matter, or anything relating to their representation of you as a client, he or she is almost definitely bound to keep that information private.

Attorney-client privilege and the confidentiality that comes with it is one of the most fundamental and important privileges provided to defendants in the United States legal system. It allows defendants to be as honest as possible with their attorneys, who in return can offer the best advice and legal counsel they are capable of providing.

There are only a few situations in which an attorney may use or share your confidential information, including:

  • to prevent someone else’s death;
  • to prevent you from committing a crime;
  • to secure legal advice from another lawyer, or to defend themselves and their colleagues against accusations of wrongful conduct. 

Rest assured that these extenuating circumstances are uncommon.  Attorneys are sworn to protect your confidential information, and they will do so in all but the rarest of cases.

Are Criminal Defense Attorneys Licensed For Their Specialty?

They can be, but they don’t need to be. Anyone who has been admitted to the bar in a certain jurisdiction can practice as a criminal defense attorney in that jurisdiction. If a Bar-admitted labor lawyer or immigration lawyer wants to switch paths and practice as a criminal defense lawyer, they can do so without receiving any further training or licensing. All attorneys can practice in all fields of law.

It is possible for criminal defense attorneys to receive certification in some specialties such as “criminal trial advocacy.” They might seek such licensing to show their dedication to criminal defense law and to ensure potential clients that they are experts. 

That being said, there are plenty of great criminal defense attorneys who lack official specialty certification. Almost all attorneys have a “specialty” of some sort, whether they receive certification or not. Just because an attorney lacks official certification as a white-collar crime specialist doesn’t mean they aren’t the best around.

What Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Do?

That depends on the circumstances of each unique case they choose to take, but generally speaking, a criminal defense attorney will do a lot of work for every client. Even in the simplest of cases, they do much more than just show up to the court to argue with the prosecution and make a case to the judge or jury. 

For starters, a criminal defense attorney will consult with you and discuss the specifics of your case. They’ll give you an idea of the consequences you’re facing, and suggest how they might be able to help. From there, if you choose to hire them, they’ll start working on your case. This can involve, but is not limited to:

  • interviewing eyewitnesses
  • selecting witnesses to bring to trial
  •  meeting with the judge or prosecution to discuss the case
  • compiling evidence in your favor, doing legal research into similar cases, and;
  •  motioning to have the entire case dismissed entirely. Before your case has even gone to trial, your attorney has done a lot of work on your behalf.

If the prosecution’s evidence against you seems unbeatable and you are willing to plead guilty, your attorney will fight to get you the most favorable plea deal possible. If your case goes to trial, your attorney will play a role in selecting the jury and then defend you to the best of their ability for as long as your trial lasts. Criminal defense attorneys do everything they can to achieve the best possible outcome for their clients.

How Much Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Make?

The most honest answer to this question is a rather unsatisfying one: it depends. The median pay for all US lawyers in 2018 was $120,910, but plenty of criminal defense attorneys make considerably more or considerably less than that amount.

Attorneys are often thought of as very comfortably wealthy folks, with expensive homes and luxury sports cars. Those attorneys do indeed exist, but so do the lower-middle-class ones who rent a sensible apartment and drive a used sedan. The reality is that there is no set amount of money that criminal defense attorneys make. Their pay depends on a number of factors, including:

  • location 
  • experience
  • specialization
  • size of firm
  • seniority within firm
  • private or public
  • pay structure (salary, bonuses, commission, etc…)

A first-year, solo-practitioner criminal defense attorney in rural Alabama might make $50,000 per year. Public defenders may make $70,000 per year but also receive a strong benefits package as government employees. A partner in a big law firm in New York City, who has been practicing for over 30 years and specializes in financial crimes, might make $5,000,000 per year.

How Much Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Cost?

Yet again, it depends. There is no set amount of money that a private criminal defense attorney might cost you. Some attorneys may cost $1,000, while others may charge you $20,000 (or more) for their services. There are two main reasons for the inconsistencies in cost: every attorney is different, and every case is unique.

An experienced, highly-skilled attorney will cost you considerably more than a brand new attorney with little or no experience under their belt. That isn’t to say that the most expensive option is always the best one, or that there are no great attorneys with reasonable rates. Just understand that an attorney’s experience, seniority, reputation, and skill-level will affect the rates they charge. The specifics of your case will also have a major effect on the cost of your defense. For example: 

  • If you are charged with a simple misdemeanor that your attorney can handle in a day or two, they might charge you a flat fee of $1,000. 
  • If you are charged with several serious felonies that will require months of work, you might be charged an hourly rate that climbs into the $200,000 range when all is said and done. The best way to get an idea of how much your unique case might cost is to consult with a criminal defense attorney.

Does it Matter Which Criminal Defense Attorney I Hire?

If you find yourself asking this question, you should first ask yourself a few others:

  • Does it matter if you go to prison?
  • Does it make a difference if you spend seven years behind bars or just one?
  • Does it matter if you struggle to find gainful employment for the rest of your life?
  • Does it matter if you miss birthdays, graduations, and other important milestones in your family’s lives? Those questions may sound dramatic, but it’s important to understand that criminal charges are no laughing matter. 

If you choose the wrong mechanic, you’ll be out a few hundred dollars and need to go to another repair shop. If you choose the wrong personal trainer, you’ll be out a few hundred dollars and need to find someone who can get you the results you want. If you choose the wrong attorney, the lost money will be the least of your concerns.

Felony and misdemeanor convictions can ruin your life. Picking a criminal defense attorney is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make, so don’t make the mistake of thinking it doesn’t matter.

What is a Typical Day For a Criminal Defense Attorney?

There is no “typical day” for a criminal defense attorney. Their daily schedule will vary heavily depending on factors such as their current caseload and the specifics of the case(s) they are working on.

  • On a given day, a criminal defense attorney might go into the office early to check emails, make some phone calls, and catch up on some legal research. Then they might head over to the courthouse for a bench trial regarding a simple misdemeanor, which they win for their client in quick fashion. 

Without any other court cases that day, they might head back to the office for a consultation, a meeting with a current client, or to continue working on a case that’s going to trial the next week.

  • On another day, a criminal defense attorney might be in the courthouse from 9am to 5pm. On yet another day, they might not step foot in a courtroom and instead spend the whole day traveling around and meeting with potential witnesses for a big case. A criminal defense attorney’s typical day varies as much as the cases they work on.

How Many Hours Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Spend on a Case?

Every case is different, and they all require different amounts of time to resolve. Some simple cases, such as common and clear-cut misdemeanors, might never go to trial and only require a few hours of an attorney’s time. 

More complex cases, such as serious financial crimes or violent felonies, might require dozens or even hundreds of hours to resolve completely. Some cases go from investigation to resolution within a few weeks, while others may last years and involve periods of heavy activity and none whatsoever. An attorney might handle several cases in a single day or just one case for months on end.

If you want an idea of how many hours a criminal defense attorney might spend on your case, the best course of action is to consult with one.

How Do You Become a Criminal Defense Attorney?

Becoming a criminal defense attorney takes a considerable amount of time and effort. 

  • First, you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. You don’t need to study pre-law or political science – you can major in any subject or field you desire.
  • Next comes the law school admissions process, which will involve taking the LSAT or GRE, writing some personal essays, and submitting your undergrad transcripts. You’ll need to get into, attend, and graduate from an ABA-accredited law school. 

You don’t need to take classes related to criminal law unless your school requires them for all students, but doing so would certainly help you in your future career. Once you graduate from law school, you’ll have a Juris Doctor degree under your belt. Congratulations on the achievement, but you’re not done yet! 

  • The final step is to be admitted to the bar in the jurisdiction where you want to practice law. This will involve passing the Bar Exam and being deemed morally fit to act as an attorney. Then, and only then, are you finally able to act as a criminal defense attorney. 

There are no further steps needed once you pass the bar. You don’t need specific certification as a criminal defense attorney, or licensed to practice criminal law. All attorneys can practice all fields of law.

What is the difference between a:

“Criminal Defense Attorney” v. “Criminal Defense Lawyer?”

Criminal defense attorneys have been admitted to the bar and can act as defendants’ representatives in court. These are the people who will stand by your side and defend you in a court of criminal law.

Criminal defense lawyers are formally educated in the law but are not necessarily admitted to the bar. They can give legal advice or do technical legal work, but they cannot act as representatives in court.

Note that, despite the distinction, these terms are mostly used interchangeably. If someone says they know a really good criminal defense lawyer, they are probably referring to someone who is actually an attorney.

“Criminal Defense Attorney” v. “Criminal Attorney?”

There is no difference between a criminal defense attorney and a criminal attorney. The two terms are interchangeable. Regardless of which term they prefer, people who carry either of these titles are bar-admitted attorneys who choose to practice criminal law.

“Private Criminal Defense Attorney” v. “Public Criminal Defense Attorney?”

A private criminal defense attorney is a privately-employed, bar-admitted attorney that defends and represents criminal defendants. They usually charge a fee for their services, but sometimes work free of charge as part of pro bono work.

A public criminal defense attorney is a government-employed, bar-admitted attorney that defends and represents criminal defendants. They are paid by the government of the relevant jurisdiction – usually the state – and therefore charge no fee to their clients. They are more commonly known as “public defenders.”

When considering whether to choose a private or public criminal defense attorney, keep in mind that public defenders are often overworked and underfunded.They may be highly-skilled attorneys with good hearts, but the reality of their job is that they probably can’t devote as much time to your case as a private attorney.

“State Criminal Defense Attorney” v. “Federal Criminal Defense Attorney?”

State criminal defense attorneys represent defendants of state crimes. They are admitted to the bar of the state where they practice and specialize in the state laws of their jurisdiction.

Federal criminal defense attorneys represent defendants of federal crimes. They must be admitted to the bar of a specific federal court before practicing in it. Generally speaking, these attorneys also have substantial experience as state criminal defense attorneys. They might seek admission to a federal bar for a single case, or they might specialize in federal cases.

“White Collar Criminal Defense Attorney” v. “Street Crime Criminal Defense Attorney?”

White collar criminal defense attorneys deal with financially motivated, non-violent crimes generally committed by business or government professionals. Typical charges they might defend against include fraud, forgery, wage theft, money laundering, and embezzlement.

Street crime criminal defense attorneys deal with violent crimes generally committed by civilians in public places. Typical charges they might defend against include robbery, pickpocketing, vandalism, assault, and drug dealing.

Technically speaking, there is no formal difference between these two types of criminal defense attorneys. White collar specialists can take on street crime cases, and street crime specialists can take on white-collar cases. The distinction lies only in the types of cases they tend to work on. 

Resources for Those Charged with a Crime:

How Do I Find the Best Criminal Defense Attorney?

There are several ways to find good attorneys, but the key is to diligently look for an attorney who specializes in the crime or type of crime that you are accused of committing. 

  • Family, friends, or colleagues may be able to recommend someone they’ve been defended by in the past, or someone they know personally. Their advice won’t be of much help, however, if they recommend a traffic lawyer or divorce lawyer when you need a bonafide criminal defense attorney. 

Even if they recommend a good criminal defense attorney, make sure that the attorney specializes in cases such as your own. Your cousin might recommend you to the world’s best street crime attorney, but that doesn’t mean much if you’re being charged with a white collar crime.

  • Google can be a helpful resource for finding a local criminal defense attorney, especially if you include your specific charge as one of your search keywords. Keep in mind, however, that just because a certain attorney or law firm shows up first in search results doesn’t mean that they are the best around. A strong online presence does not necessarily equate to a strong courtroom presence. 
  • State bar association websites usually provide help finding attorneys, but keep the same advice in mind. Just because an attorney is the first one recommended by a bar association website doesn’t mean they are the right fit for you and your case.

Your best bet is to search around as if you’re looking to buy a new car. Call a few different attorneys, meet for a few consultations, and do as much research as you can into them. You don’t need to settle on the first attorney you talk to unless you are absolutely blown away by them. 

You’re looking for someone who specializes in the type of crime you are being charged with, who has a flat fee or hourly rate you can afford, and who can explain their plan of action in a way that you understand. This is a big decision, so take it seriously.

How Do I Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney?

Once you’ve found a criminal defense attorney you want to represent you, you’ve gotten the hard part out of the way. Your next step is to ask them if they would like to represent you and what the associated costs would be. It’s not a guarantee that your first choice of attorney will accept your case. 

Attorneys can turn down any case, for any reason, so long as their refusal isn’t discriminatory in nature. Don’t take it personally if you get refused; it’s likely that your case just wouldn’t fit into their already busy caseload, or that they prefer working on different charges than those you have received. If your desired attorney would like to take on your case, you will need to come to an agreement on how to pay for their counsel. 

Some attorneys will bill hourly, while others will charge one flat fee. They might let you set up a scheduled payment plan, so the upfront cost isn’t insurmountable, or they might require an upfront retainer fee before they even begin working on the case. A good attorney will be transparent and helpful when it comes to paying and hiring them.

How Many Criminal Defense Attorneys Are There In The United States?

It is hard to say exactly how many criminal defense attorneys there are in the United States.

There are approximately 1.34 million attorneys as of 2018, and all of them are capable of practicing in any field of law they so choose. Since attorneys don’t need to obtain official certification for their chosen specialties, there are no reliable statistics on exactly how many attorneys primarily practice criminal defense law.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in conjunction with its affiliates, has roughly 50,000 members. This gives us a rough idea that there are at least 50,000 criminal defense attorneys, but there is no way of telling where the upper bound might be. 

Rest assured, there are probably enough criminal defense attorneys in your area for you to find the perfect fit for your case. Whether there are 50,000 criminal defense attorneys in the US or over 500,000, all you need is 1 to act as your counsel and representative.