A person charged with a crime that could lead to imprisonment for at least six months has a Constitutional right to an attorney, regardless of whether they are innocent or not. For this reason, there will always be a need for criminal defense lawyers. As a criminal defense lawyer, you will safeguard your client’s Constitutional rights, making sure that the state proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before they deny your client of liberty. Although the road to becoming a criminal defense attorney is long, it is a rewarding career for those suited to the job.
1. Qualifying for Law School
Obtain a bachelor’s degree. In order to get into law school, you first need a bachelor’s degree (4 year degree) from an accredited college or university. It does not matter what kind of bachelor’s degree you get, but most pre-law students obtain bachelor’s degrees in political science, psychology, or sociology.
Make sure the school you choose is accredited. To ensure that the school you choose is accredited, check the U.S. Department of Education’s (“DOE”) Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs for a listing.
You do not need to major in “criminal justice” as an undergraduate. In fact, criminal justice majors are admitted to law schools are admitted at a lower rate than those who majored in journalism, philosophy, or economics. Although you will not be penalized for majoring in criminal justice, there is no automatic benefit in law school admissions for having done so.Practice public speaking. One of the most important skills you will need as an attorney is the confidence to speak in front of anyone. You can begin to develop this skill while in college. Join debate or public speaking clubs.
You will also want to strengthen your research and writing skills, so you should take classes that allow you to write long research papers.
Keep your grades up. Not everyone gets into law school. To increase your chances of getting in, keep your grades up. You want to graduate with at least a 3.0, but of course a 3.5 or 4.0 would be even better. Admissions committees view a high GPA as an indicator that you are a hard worker who is self-motivated.
The higher your undergraduate GPA, the more selective you can be about what schools to apply to. Even if you do not care about the rank of the law school you attend, a higher GPA makes scholarships easier to get.Build relationships with professors. When you apply to law school, you will need to submit letters of recommendation. Make the most of your four years in college by building relationships with professors who can write you strong recommendations.
A great way to build relationships with faculty is to work as a research or teaching assistant.Intern with a criminal defense lawyer. Many small law firms need clerical and support staff assistance in the summer but also throughout the year. You can work part-time for a criminal defense lawyer as you work toward your undergraduate degree. Doing so will give you a taste of what criminal defense work is like.
Study for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The LSAT is by far the most important part of your application, and you will need a score around the 50 percentile in order to get into an accredited law school.
Because of the recent decline in law school applicants, law schools are giving away more scholarships than ever before. A high LSAT will help you qualify for free money from your law school of choice.
Register for the test. The LSAT is offered four times a year, in June, September, December, and February. It is offered on Saturdays, but there are special sessions for those who observe a Saturday Sabbath.
Create a free account at the Law School Admission Counsel’s (“LSAC”) website.
Find a test date and location. To do this, start on LSAC’s Law School Admission Counsel’s website Dates and Deadlines page.
Study for the test. The LSAT may be the most important factor in your law school application, so take it seriously. It tests reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. Test prep companies offer tutoring, but you can also study on your own.
Your local library or bookstore should have copies of old LSAT exams. Find the most recent to take as practice exams.Take the test. The LSAT has five multiple choice sections and one unscored essay. Four of the five multiple choice sections count toward your score. The fifth is experimental and does not count toward your score. Unfortunately, you will not know in advance which section is experimental.
Follow the rules for test day very carefully. If you fail to follow any of the test day rules, you may not be allowed to take the test. A complete set of test day rules can be found on the LSAC’s website on its Day of the test webpage.Retake if your score is low. Applicants are allowed to take the exam more than once. Schools may choose to accept your higher score, or they may choose to average the two. If you take the LSAT twice but your score doesn’t improve, you should reconsider before taking it a third time.
On average, test takers are able to increase their score only two to three points on a re-take.
2. Preparing to Apply to Law School
Decide if being a lawyer is really for you. Law schools are full of students who sign up thinking that law is an easy way to make big money when in reality there is nothing easy about it. Lawyers (including defense lawyers) work long hours, cope with stress, and struggle to get along with opposing counsel, clients, bosses, and judges.
Now might be a good time to think about how you will finance your legal education. The cost of a legal education has exploded in the past decade. Students routinely pay over $30,000 a year in tuition alone, which does not include additional costs for living expenses. If you are not careful, you could graduate law school $200,000 in debt.
The dramatic rise in tuition coincides with a slow-down in hiring of attorneys. According to the American Bar Association, less than 60% of law graduates were employed in full-time, long-term jobs that required a law degree. Other graduates are trying to piece together part-time legal jobs or working out of the legal field altogether.
Solicit letters of recommendation. Now is the time to draw on the relationships you have built up with faculty during your undergraduate career. Ask your professors if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. Only follow through if that professor says “yes.”
If you didn’t build strong relationships with faculty, don’t despair. You can also ask for recommendations from present and past employers, as well as from people associated with church or volunteer organizations.
Some recommenders may need to be prompted to complete the letter. Send a friendly email reminder, or stop in to chat.Draft a personal statement. Law schools require that you write a short statement, typically on a topic of your choosing. The statement is usually only 500 words.
Follow the directions. If the school wants you to write on a specific topic, write on that topic. Also, if they give you a word limit, stick to the limit. Going over, by even a few words, can harm your chances of admission.
Feel free to write about your interest in criminal defense law. Note, however, that law schools do not offer majors, not even in criminal law. Consequently, don’t say you want to apply to a school to “major” in something. Instead, state why you think the school will help you fulfill your dream of practicing criminal defense. Think about writing an addendum. An addendum can be a great way to explain something that looks bad in your application. A solid addendum will provide context for any information that might raise “red flags.”
An addendum might clarify why one LSAT score is much higher than another, or it might explain why your grades were low one semester. Remember to explain, not make excuses.
3. Choosing a Law School
Think about where you want to practice. Only a handful of law schools have national reach. Instead, most law schools place their graduates in the local legal community, usually in small firms or local government agencies. You should therefore pick a law school in an area where you want to practice.
You should always ask any prospective law school for its job placement statistics. Over the past few years, a sea change has occurred with respect to the way schools collect job placement data. Now schools must include much more detailed information about the employment rates of recent graduates.
Pay attention to the number of students who get “full-time jobs requiring a JD” after graduation. Other employment statistics will fold in people who are working part-time or who are working in a field that doesn’t require a law degree.Compare costs. As you compare law schools, you should always have costs in the forefront of your mind. You might assume that public schools are always cheaper than private schools, but that is not always the case. The tuition for out-of-state law students is often comparable to the tuition of a private school.
If you want to move to a state and hope to qualify as an in-state resident, contact the law school’s admissions office for information.Research clinical opportunities. One of the best ways to gain criminal defense experience is to participate in a law school clinic. Under the supervision of a clinical faculty member, you will provide real legal services to people caught in the criminal justice system. As part of your clinical experience, you may arrange jail releases, interview clients and witnesses, negotiate with prosecutors and even try cases before judges and juries.
Visit the website for each lawsuit and check to see what clinical opportunities they have. Criminal law clinics are fairly popular with law schools, since there is no shortage of clients in need of assistance.
Some magazines or websites rank law school clinical programs. Do not get too caught up in ranking. You are unlikely to get a job because you participated in a “ranked” clinical program. Instead, ask schools about: the number of students who can take the criminal defense clinic, what kinds of tasks they do, whether they can participate in trials, and whether they can take the clinic as a 2L (or even as a 1L).Study schools. Choosing a law school for some will be quite easy. Those who plan to stay in the area where they currently reside may only have 1 or 2 options. For others, the choice might be more difficult. In addition to costs, applicants should consider:
Curriculum. The basic curriculum for first year students is pretty much the same at any law school, but after the first year, the classes available might be very different. Look for a curriculum with plenty of criminal law cases.
Library and other facilities. You will likely be spending a lot of time in the library while attending law school, so be sure that the library has quality resource materials and hours that will work with your schedule.
Accreditation. You want to be sure that the law school you choose to attend is accredited by the American Bar Association (“ABA”), as you might not be able to sit for the bar examination if your school is not. To check that the law school you wish to attend is accredited, check the ABA’s ABA Approved Law Schools page.
Trial advocacy programs. More than other lawyers, criminal defense attorneys must be effective trial attorneys. Many law schools offer trial advocacy programs. These programs teach students the ins and outs of the entire trial process, from creating effective exhibits and questioning witnesses, to delivering effective opening and closing statements. Law schools often field trial advocacy teams that compete in national competitions.
Solo practitioner incubators. Some law schools have realized that many of their students become solo practitioners. Therefore, they have created programs designed to help students hit the ground running as solos once they graduate and pass the bar. Since many criminal defense lawyers work as solo practitioners, you may be interested in a school that offers an incubator program.Use your GPA and LSAT score to find appropriate schools. These are the two most important factors in law school admissions, and schools will rely on them heavily. Because application fees can be expensive (sometimes close to $100), you will want to be selective about which schools you apply to. Look for schools where your GPA and LSAT fall near the school’s medians.
You can gauge your likelihood of gaining admission to specific schools by using the LSAC calculator. Enter your undergraduate GPA and LSAC score to see your chances.
If you have a 3.5 GPA and a 155 LSAT, then you have a 25% chance of getting into Arizona State, a 50% chance of getting into Michigan State, and a 75% chance of getting into the University of Miami.
Apply to multiple law schools. Applying to more than one school increases your chances of being accepted. If you don’t get into any school, then you will have to wait a year before applying.
For some great tips on completing law school applications see the University of New Mexico’s Tips on How to Make your Application as Competitive as Possible.
4. Earning a Law Degree
Take required courses. Law schools generally require 90 credits or so, spread out over 3 years. Your first year will consist mostly of basic courses: torts, contracts, property, civil procedure, criminal law, and constitutional law.
Most criminal defense attorneys work in small firms. However, some do white-collar criminal defense work for wealthy individuals or corporations. White collar criminal defense attorneys are employed by some of the largest firms in the country. If you want to do this type of work, then you will need to do very well in your first-year classes, finishing near the top of your class.
Visit your career services office and ask if they have information on the GPA required to be competitive at the large firms in your market.
Join a study group. Law school is stressful and isolating, and a study group is a great way to meet people. Study groups help with exam preparation, sharing notes and outlines, as well as just blowing off some steam.
If you join a study group, stick with it. No one likes people who join a group only to drop out after a month.Take exams seriously. Before you can become a lawyer, you have to pass law school. Your grades will also follow you around your entire career. Though the importance of grades decreases over time, poor grades could keep you locked out of jobs, at least initially.
Take criminal law electives as soon as possible. Many law schools allow students to begin taking electives beginning with their second semester. You will want to take courses such as Constitutional Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and Trial Advocacy.Look for internships. An excellent addition to your legal education would be an internship with a judge, preferably one who handles criminal matters. Look into performing an “externship” with a federal judge or a state criminal court judge. Most law schools allow externships for credit. If interested, contact your career center for more information.
As a judicial extern, you will get an up-close view of how judges decide cases, and you will understand what arguments they find persuasive and which ones they don’t. As an extern, you will research case law, draft portions of memos or bench orders, and watch oral arguments.
You can also intern with a public defender’s office. This is a great way to begin building your reputation and gaining experience in criminal law. You will work closely with a public defender on his or her cases and probably go to court with them as well.Work as a summer associate for a criminal defense attorney. During the summers you can work for attorneys as a clerk or a summer associate. You should begin looking for these opportunities in the spring semester. Larger firms will advertise through your school’s career center. However, you can also send out a copy of your resume and transcript and ask if a position is available.
You might get paid, but money should not be the primary purpose of a summer job. Instead, you should begin building your reputation. Be sure to do top-notch work, no matter how boring the assignment.
Once you graduate law school, you might not have a job. If you did good work as a summer associate, however, you can reach out to the attorney and ask for work after you graduate. You may only get piecemeal overflow work, but it can help pay the bills and give you additional experience.
Be sure to get writing experience in your summer jobs. Employers usually ask for a writing sample when you apply for a job, and it is best to have a “real world” writing sample, such as a motion or brief, than a writing assignment you did for a legal writing class in law school.
Pass the MPRE. The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination is required to practice in all but three jurisdictions in the United States. The exam has 60 questions and tests your knowledge of legal ethics. You will take the exam in your third year of law school.5. Obtaining Your Law License
Apply for admittance to a state bar. Each state admits its own lawyers and administers its own bar exam, so check with the bar of the state where you wish to practice. They will provide you with a list of the necessary steps to take.
Register for the bar exam. Nearly every state requires that you pass a written exam. The exam typically includes an essay portion as well as a multiple choice test.
The bar exam is typically offered twice a year—once during the summer (June or July) and once the winter (usually February). If you have to take the bar exam over, you have to pay each time you take it.Prepare for the bar exam. Prep courses abound. They typically last several months and prepare you for both the essay and multiple choice portions of the bar exam. Costs can run up to several thousand dollars.
If costs are a concern, then you can seek out old study guides published by bar prep companies. Many people sell old guides on eBay and other online retailers.Fill out the background survey. In addition to passing the bar exam, you also need to pass a character and fitness review. This requires filling out a detailed survey on your background.
Common problems with character and fitness include criminal convictions, financial irresponsibility (such as bankruptcy), and accusations of plagiarism. These may not completely block you from admission, but be prepared to discuss them with the character and fitness committee.
Always be honest when filling out the background survey. Often the attempt to hide something is worse than the offense in the first place.Take the bar examination. The bar exam is typically held over the course of 2 days. The first day consists of a multiple-choice exam covering topics such as contracts, constitutional law, criminal law, evidence, and torts. The second day, consisting of essays, is often state-specific.
Expect to wait several months to receive your score. In Illinois, for example, those who take the exam in July will not receive their results until the first two weeks of October.6. Starting as a Criminal Defense Lawyer
Understand the job market for criminal defense lawyers. Some law students who attend highly-ranked schools and graduate at the top of their class will get offers while in law school to join large national firms to work as associates practicing white collar law. This will not be the reality for the vast majority of new attorneys. To build a criminal defense practice, you need to understand how different legal employers hire.
Large law firms. They typically hire students to work as summer associates after their 2L year. Often, they come onto campus and interview immediately before the start of the 2L year (or during that fall) and extend an offer shortly thereafter. After you work as a summer associate during your 2L summer, the firm will decide whether to extend an offer to join the firm full-time. These jobs are very difficult to get, and you will need a high GPA to be competitive.
District attorney offices and public defenders. In addition to prosecutors, both the state and federal government have public defender offices that provide free legal defense for indigent defendants. Both district attorneys and public defenders will often come onto your campus for interviewing. These agencies are also quite selective.
Medium and small firms. Smaller firms may also come onto campus for interviewing, but most cannot forecast their employment needs in advance. Therefore, they probably won’t hire many summer associates, if any. When a job opens up, these firms will advertise, and they probably will want you to already have passed the bar before you apply. You probably won’t apply to these jobs until after you graduate law school.Participate in On Campus Interviews (OCI). If firms or agencies come onto your campus for interviews, you might as well sign up if your grades are even somewhat competitive. Going through the interview process will help you hone your interviewing skills. Your career services office will send out detailed requirements for participating in OCI, such as preparing a resume and ordering copies of your transcript.Search online for job postings. Smaller firms often advertise online. You can check Craigslist, job aggregators like Indeed.com, and with your state bar association, which may have a jobs board. You will be asked to forward a resume, cover letter, and writing sample, so have those ready to go.Set up informational interviews. After taking the bar exam, you should identify attorneys whose practices you would like to learn more about. Draft a letter (not an email) and introduce yourself. Be sure to mention who gave you their name.
In the letter, explicitly state that you are not asking for a job. You will get a better response this way.
Develop a list of questions (at least five) and take notes. Be engaged.
Ask the attorney if she knows anyone else you can talk to, and be sure to send a thank you note afterwards.Reach out to former employers. If you cannot find a job after passing the bar, re-connect with attorneys you worked for during the summer or part-time during the school year. They may have overflow work for you to do, such as research assignments, court appointments, or briefing.
You can also cold call other criminal defense attorneys and ask if they have any overflow work. If you do not have a job, you should be most focused on building your reputation and not be picky about how much you get paid. If you do good work for low wages (or even for free), then the attorney may come back to you with additional work.Get a first job. Even if criminal defense is your dream, you might need to take another legal job simply to pay the bills. Ideally, you could work as a prosecutor and see the criminal justice system from the other side for a few years. You also might be employed as a transactional attorney, an insurance claims adjuster, or working as a legal research assistant.
Unless you work as a prosecutor, you can seek out pro bono criminal defense work on your own. Many states maintain databases of organizations seeking pro bono assistance. Religious charities and immigration organizations often seek criminal defense attorneys to counsel clients.Seek out court-appointed work. Some states or counties lack a public defender office. In those places, courts will select an attorney from a panel to represent the defendant. You will typically bill your time to the court, though the amount you can get will be capped. Ask your local court if they appoint criminal defense matters and sign up if they do.
Even some areas with public defenders often need a panel of private attorneys in case the public defender has a conflict. You should ask your local court about this possibility as well.Stay connected to the criminal defense community. As your career advances, be sure to continue to raise your profile by offering continuing legal education courses, joining bar association committees, and joining national organizations like the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
You can also seek board certification in criminal law, if your state offers it. You may have to take an exam and meet minimum practice requirements, such as practicing for a number of years and dedicating a certain percentage of your practice to criminal law.