In a world of mandatory minimums and unjust sentencing laws, many law students are feeling the call to a career in criminal defense. According to a Galveston criminal defense attorney, “The United States has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world.” Certainly, the market is starved for good defense attorneys, and a career in this field can be highly rewarding. Everybody wants to be Matlock or Atticus Finch – the noble warrior fighting the good fight and seeking justice for the innocent victim of circumstances. But the reality of a criminal defense career is quite different. Here are a few things you need to be aware of before deciding on your course of study.

State and Federal Criminal Defense Representation is Different

A key factor to understand if a person is contemplating becoming a criminal defense attorney is the difference between federal and state criminal prosecutions. Some experienced criminal defense lawyers would suggest that the federal system is more formal, more restrictive.

Many criminal defense lawyers practice in both federal and state court. However, there are others who elect to focus their practices in one system or another.

It’s Not All About Trials

The vast majority of criminal cases never end up in trials. Trials look very exciting on television and in films. However, in “real life,” well over 90 percent of criminal prosecutions are resolved through plea agreements. In fact, this is usually the best-case scenario for your client.


With this in mind, a person contemplating becoming a criminal defense lawyer needs to understand the importance of being effective at negotiating. Although being able to perform in court is vital, having strong negotiating skills is crucial as well.

Get Experience Before Putting Out a Shingle

Many people consider becoming criminal defense lawyers with the idea of starting their own practices. Starting a practice can be exciting and rewarding, but you are entering an extremely competitive market. Thus, it is crucial for a person serious about becoming a skilled criminal defense lawyer to gain experience before ever thinking of heading out into practice on his or her own.

A great starting point for a criminal defense attorney is in a prosecutor’s office. This can be on either the state or federal level. Keep in mind, larger municipalities also have prosecutors as well.

Most Cases are Not Crusades for Justice

Most criminal defendants are guilty. They may not be guilty as charged, however. Prosecutors have a tendency to overcharge in order to leave room to negotiate a plea settlement. There is something morally upright about protecting clients against overzealous prosecution and the dangers of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, but be aware that your clients will almost certainly be guilty. The career will not be an exercise in fighting great crusades on behalf of innocent people wrongly charged with crimes.

Long Hours and Not the Best Pay

Lawyers always make great money, right? Not necessarily. Particularly when a person starts in the field of criminal defense, he or she can face long hours at work and compensation that doesn’t compare with what attorneys in other areas of the law may be earning. Over time, and as a person establishes a reputation, financial remuneration will increase, however.

A career in criminal defense can be highly rewarding, but you need to be in love with the idea of being underappreciated, working long hours for guilty clients. Too many law students fall in love with the idea of criminal defense but not the reality. I don’t want to scare you away entirely, but I also don’t want you going into a career that you hate.

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