A Comprehensive Guide to Becoming a Defense Attorney

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How to Become a Defense Attorney

Have you ever wondered how to become a defense attorney? Wonder no more!

Defense attorneys play an invaluable role in the legal profession, and becoming a defense lawyer is a great career path for individuals eager to get into the courtroom. 

Below, we’ll outline how to become a defense attorney, starting with educational requirements and moving on to work experience and career outlooks. 

Defense lawyer prepping client at courthouse

What is a defense attorney?

Defense attorneys are lawyers who represent defendants or accused parties in court. Rather than advancing a claim against another party, a defense attorney focuses on protecting their clients’ from a claim and building defenses that reduce the likelihood of civil or criminal penalties (ranging from a judgment against them to incarceration). 

Depending on their area of defense practice, defense attorneys may represent individuals or corporations. 

Traditionally, when a person hears “defense attorney,” they likely think of criminal defense lawyers who represent an accused person. 

In practice, defense lawyers can serve a wide range of roles in the legal profession depending on their area or areas of specialization. In some cases, defense lawyers work in-house for insurance companies and corporations, handling claims brought against their employer. 

Steps to become a defense attorney

Assuming you take the traditional route of becoming a lawyer, including going to law school, you’ll need to consider several educational requirements and testing hurdles. Below, we’ve outlined the steps required to become a defense lawyer. 

Graduate with a bachelor’s degree

Generally, you’ll need to obtain your bachelor’s degree from an accredited university before attending law school. 

Why “generally?” Some law schools in the United States do not require an undergraduate degree to apply, though, for the most part, it’s an essential requirement when becoming a lawyer. Check with the law school (or schools) of your choice before making any assumptions about their requirements. 

During this stage, you typically won’t need to worry too much about your specializationunless you are planning to become a highly-specialized type of lawyer, such as an accounting lawyer or a patent lawyer. However, it’s prudent to select an undergraduate degree that will offer complementary skills for legal practice. 

Traditionally, political science, criminal justice (particularly relevant if you intend to become a criminal defense lawyer), history, and philosophy have been popular undergraduate degrees among hopeful law students. 

Remember the value of extracurricular activities while working on your undergraduate degree. Joining clubs, volunteering, and gaining work experience are all valuable ways of developing your skills—and a strong law school application. 

Sit for the LSAT

During (or after finishing) your undergraduate degree, you’ll also need to sit for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), a three-hour, four-part test that measures reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. The LSAT is held monthly at different locations. Register as early as possible to secure your spot—and if you aren’t happy with your score, don’t fret! You can take the LSAT multiple times before applying to law school. 

Law students gather in front of one of the top law schools

Attend and graduate law school

Once you’ve completed your educational requirements and taken the LSAT, you’re all set to apply to law school—and when you get in, that’s when the real fun begins! 

You’ll obtain your Juris Doctorate (J.D.) through a three-year law school program. The law school curriculum starts with at least one year of education in foundational legal areas, including:

  • Criminal law
  • Torts
  • Civil procedure
  • Property law
  • Contracts
  • Legal research 

We recently ranked the top law schools in the country—be sure to check it out!

Once you’ve made your way through these core courses, you’ll have more flexibility to specialize by choosing particular courses that match your practice goals. 

Extracurriculars—like moot court or working at a legal clinic—should not be overlooked, especially if you’re planning to become a defense lawyer (a litigation-heavy practice area). These opportunities can provide law students with valuable courtroom procedure experience early in their careers and provide a leg-up when applying for defense lawyer positions. In particular, legal clinics can provide you with an invaluable opportunity to represent clients in a real courtroom under the supervision of an attorney.  

Pass the bar exam

Once you’ve graduated from law school, there’s one more hurdle you’ll have to overcome before becoming a licensed attorney in your state: Writing the bar exam. While the length of the exam varies by state, it’s known to be comprehensive, challenging, and can take two or three days to complete. 

Keep in mind that the bar exam is generally only available twice a year—meaning that you’ll want to ensure that you’re well-prepared for it. Consider taking a bar preparation class, such as BARBRI, and put in the time to study the material. 

Gain work experience

You’ve passed the bar and are ready to practice law—now what? 

After obtaining your license, you’ll need work experience. For aspiring defense lawyers, you’ll need to start by thinking critically about gaining experience and where you should apply. If you’re interested in criminal defense work, seek out criminal firms—or, if you’re looking for other types of defense work, firms that practice insurance or corporate law are great places to look. 

Above all, remember that becoming a defense lawyer isn’t all about having “defense experience.” Working for plaintiffs can be an excellent asset for aspiring defense lawyers—it provides valuable insights into how plaintiffs run their cases, so you can better respond to claims and understand what’s happening on the other side. In fact, many lawyers start on “one side of the fence,” so to speak, and then move into defense work later (or vice versa). 

Don’t overlook the benefits of alternative paths, either. You can obtain valuable defense lawyer experience by interning, volunteering, or even working at a courthouse. While these roles may not throw you directly into defense practice, they can provide invaluable insights and help you develop skills relevant to defense practice (such as knowledge of courthouse procedure or courtroom experience).

Technology experience can also help set you apart from the competition when applying for defense lawyer roles—especially if you’re familiar with legal practice management software. Modern law offices use legal technology to run more efficiently, and when you come into a new role with solid technological foundations, your firm benefits.  

With Clio, for example, law firms can easily manage everything from intake to payments. And, if you’re a law student, you can get free access to Clio through Clio’s Academic Access Program, giving you a leg up before you’ve started your defense lawyer career.  

Salary and career outlook

What does the future hold for defense lawyers? 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers have a great job outlook. Lawyer employment is expected to grow 10% from 2021 to 2031—due, in part, to lawyer retirements. This growth is higher than the average for all occupations in the United States. 

What’s more, the average salary for lawyers was $127,990 per year (or $61.54 per hour) in 2021. Keep in mind that these numbers are a median—with the right skills and experience, you could be making more as a defense lawyer.   

Final thoughts on how to become a defense attorney

Becoming a defense lawyer is a rewarding career path that will provide you with significant courtroom experience. To get a head start on the technology required to succeed in your career, be sure to check out Clio’s Academic Access Program

And, if you’re still unsure what type of lawyer you want to become, we have plenty of resources that will help guide you through your options—check out our other resources on how to become a lawyer, targeted at different practice areas. 


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