Criminal defense work can be tough, but rewarding.
Think you’ve got what it takes?
Consider these 19 pros and cons of being a defense attorney before joining a criminal defense legal practice.
Pros and Cons of Being A Defense Attorney
#1 Pro: Legal Defense work is never boring.
If you are the kind of person who loves variety, criminal defense work is for you.
Every person is different.
Thus, even if the charges are the same, the case is going to be different.
Even if the facts are identical, the case is going to be different.
You’ll have to develop a unique approach and strategy to every case, even if it seems similar on the surface.
You’ll have new witnesses to talk to, different combinations of law enforcement officers and prosecutors to work with (and against).
Every day in the defense world is different.
#2 Con: Criminal Defense work is, well, a lot of work.
Most criminal defense lawyers carry a large case load, as big as they can possibly handle.
Every new case must go through intake, investigation, analysis, and preparation for trial, even if the case resolves with negotiation and a plea.
Lawyers must work up a case to be able to advise their clients adequately about their options.
Understanding the chances of winning or losing at trial is only gained upon a full work up of the case.
Advising the client to accept a plea without reviewing discovery, performing an investigation, and preparing for trial borders on malpractice, even if the lawyer has a lot of experience.
This means that many criminal defense lawyers work long hours, especially if a lot of their cases are going to trial.
Every hour spent in trial requires multiple hours of preparation behind the scenes.
If you are someone who wants to work a regular 8am-5pm job and go home to the family without additional work or worries, then criminal defense work is not for you.
#3 Pro: Criminal Defense lawyers make a difference.
Criminal defense attorneys help people in their darkest hours, no doubt about that.
Regardless of what a person has done (or not done), the assistance of a good defense lawyer is vital as the judicial process progresses.
Defendants (innocent or guilty) need help to get the best possible result.
It is truly rare for a defendant to represent him or herself and get the best possible result.
Defense lawyers help shoulder the burden of stress and responsibility.
They guide their clients along a path fraught with peril, to hopefully the best possible result given the facts.
When a person’s freedom, livelihood, money, reputation, family, their everything is on the line, a defense lawyer does more than help with the case.
They help their clients defend the things most important to them.
And that can feel really good.
Because you are truly helping people in their time of need.
Truly making a difference in someone’s life.
#4 Con: Defense Clients are accused of doing bad things.
Putting the question of guilt or innocence aside, criminal defense clients are often accused of committing terrible acts.
Imagine the worst conduct possible, involving money, property, family, emotional distress, and physical injury.
It can be very difficult as a defense attorney to assist a client who is accused of committing some of these acts, especially when they involve violence or children.
It can be hard to put aside the facts to focus on providing the best possible defense to the client, whether the client has retained you with his/her own money or you are being paid by the government (court appointed work).
If you are someone who feels so strongly about certain criminal acts that you could not put aside your personal feelings to focus on your work, then criminal defense is a pretty tough career.
#5 Pro: Criminal Defense attorneys can earn a really good living.
Depending on the type of criminal defense work you do, you can earn a great living as a defense lawyer.
Retainers for top defense lawyers for major felony/federal cases can exceed $50,000 or even $100,000 to get started.
When someone is accused of a crime that could put them in jail for the rest of their life (or even cost them their life), they’ll pay their lawyers everything they have, mortgage everything they have, max out every credit card, borrow money from friends, and more.
#6 Con: Criminal Defense attorneys might not earn a really good living.
There’s a few ways that criminal defense attorneys get paid.
There’s retained work (where the clients pay the attorneys directly).
There’s court-appointed work (where the clients cannot afford to hire an attorney).
With court appointed work, the attorney accepts the client and payment from the government.
The hourly rate the attorney earns for court-appointed work is dramatically less than if they accepted retained clients.
Court-appointed attorneys might earn $20-$60/hour, while a retained lawyer earns anywhere from $200-$800/hour).
They might also receive grants or funding to assist a certain kind of low income client (like victim’s of domestic violence).
Depending on where the attorney lives, the money they earn might be plenty to pay for bills….or not.
#7 Pro: Criminal Defense work is not physically demanding.
While attorneys may be using their brains all day, every day, one of the perks really is that the job is not physically demanding.
Attorneys work in offices, or spend their time in courtrooms.
While they might spend time at the jail meeting with clients (which is not a comfortable or nice place), and they might head out to the scene of the incident to review evidence, there is seldom any lifting or demanding physical work.
#8 Con: Stress/Burnout/Depression is common.
Criminal defense work (whether retained or court appointed) involves long hours, full days of meeting with clients and witnesses, attending court, and assisting in high stakes matters.
There isn’t much room for self-care, such as eating well, exercising, taking vacations, sleeping, spending time with family or friends, or turning off hand-held devices.
While focused on the work, criminal defense lawyers ignore health and happiness concerns.
They might medicate with substances (such as alcohol).
As a result, many criminal defense attorneys leave the practice area to work on other types of law, or leave the practice of law altogether.
#9 Pro: Criminal Defense lawyers develop valuable skills.
A criminal defense lawyer must develop their research and advocacy skills in a hurry to succeed in the practice.
Criminal defense work moves quickly.
There isn’t time to agonize over whether a decision is the right one.
They must be effective communicators.
They must get the research done, and done right.
They must be able to analyze and argue the facts and the law.
They prepare for trial almost daily, while many lawyers in the civil world might prepare for one trial a year (or even less).
A good criminal defense lawyer can transition into almost any other trial practice in the civil world and succeed, because of the skills gained in the office and the courtroom.
#10 Con: Not everyone respects criminal defense lawyers.
People outside of the law (and even inside of it) have a hard time separating the defense lawyer from the bad acts their client is accused of committing.
“How can you live with yourself?”
“How can you help someone who did _____________(insert heinous act)?”
“You helped a murderer go free.”
Defense lawyers help safeguard the constitutional rights of citizens, such as the right to a fair trial, the right to be safe from unlawful searches and seizures, the right to life and liberty.
These constitutional mandates apply to all people, guilty and innocent.
When someone is accused of murder, those rights do not evaporate.
They are more important than ever.
But all people see and hear is the bad act, and how a person was accused of it.
Or is guilty of it.
And they lump defense attorneys in with the accused.
This can be hard to deal with, if you are someone who cares greatly about status or what people think about you.
#11 Pro: Become A Businessowner.
Criminal defense lawyers can start their own business.
As a defense lawyer, you can work for yourself, or start a firm.
In a firm, you can hire other attorneys to work with you and for you, along with associated staff.
In a firm, you could stand to earn a lot more money each month than you might as an attorney working alone and for yourself alone.
Eventually, you could actually reduce the number of cases you have to take on to meet your financial goals, or be more choosy about the clients you want to work with and work for.
#12 Con: Law school loans impact job choices.
Law school in the United States costs a lot of money.
There’s no getting around that.
While some people are able to pay for law school out of pocket, or receive scholarships, most lawyers-to-be take out loans to go to school.
In fact, because lawyers have the potential to earn a lot of money after graduating, they are seen as less needy of grants and other assistance to get them through school.
They’ll be able to pay if off without too much difficulty, this is the prevailing opinion.
While this can be true, law school loan payments can be thousands of dollars a month once the forbearance period ends.
A new lawyer might not be able to pursue his career goals of helping disadvantaged individuals because of the monthly obligations, as these jobs are not generally well-paid.
In some instances, new lawyers must take associate jobs that they don’t really want or aren’t interested in because the debts are such a burden.
#13 Con: Defense work is hard on family life.
It is incredibly difficult to put family first when you are a criminal defense lawyer.
Clients are going through something that might be the worst thing they’ve ever experienced in their life.
They expect their lawyer to be there for them, especially if they’ve paid the lawyer a heck of a lot of money.
This means late night calls, and weekend conferences.
This means emails to answer, as well as text messages, outside of the office.
If you have trial, you have trial.
Trial doesn’t stop because your child is ill, or because they have a dance recital.
Trial prep takes place in the evening and on weekends, as days in the office are full of phone calls, client meetings, and court appearances.
Mom or Dad is often distracted, even when they are at home.
It’s incredibly hard to get out of the office to go on vacation.
This involves doing a ton of work in advance of leaving, and confronting a back log when you return.
It means that the other spouse carries the burden of the home.
There’s often a lot of time away and apart.
It’s no wonder that many lawyers are divorced, sometimes more than once.
#14 Pro: You can work as long as you want.
One of the cool things about being a lawyer is that you can be a lawyer as long as your brain is working.
While many people (especially those doing physical labor) look forward to retiring as soon as possible, many lawyers continue to work (and enjoy the work) well beyond the average retirement age.
As long as you are still competent, you can work as long as you want, well into your 80’s if you choose.
With so much knowledge and experience, you can be an amazing asset to your clients and the community.
Further, working longer (and keeping your mind highly active longer) could keep you alive and sharp longer as well.
#15 Con: Networking expectations add more stuff to a busy life.
Unless you are doing court-appointed work, networking obligations are a fact of life.
While billboards, yellow page ads, and even social media advertising can get clients, the primary way lawyers get high paying clients is from referrals.
Word of mouth recommendations.
The primary way to get those recommendations is to be well-known.
This means that lawyers often invest tons of hours a year at charity events, sitting on boards, volunteering, attending events, and helping when called upon.
When you are already completely maxed out, the networking can be the straw that breaks the camels back.
#16 Con: Dealing with other lawyers can suck.
While many lawyers are a pleasure to deal with, many lawyers are not.
Sadly, it is not uncommon for lawyers engaged in battle to verbally abuse each other (or their clients).
Lawyers say unkind things.
Lawyers love to make threats (usually legal ones) to win the day.
Lawyers can be arrogant, and speak down to others.
#17 Con: Dealing with clients can suck.
Clients are not always nice to their lawyers.
They have high expectations, and are not shy about criticizing you.
They second guess you.
They don’t trust you.
They demand their money back, even when it isn’t warranted.
They post defamatory statements online about you.
Their family and friends (who don’t even know the facts of the situation) will do it too.
Sometimes they won’t pay you.
Their problems become your problems, and after a while it can get pretty old.
Especially when those problems could have been avoided.
Sometimes defense clients are mean, abusive, or mentally unstable.
They might be depressed, in need of professional medical treatment/mental health evaluations.
Defense clients commit new crimes sometimes while your case with them is pending.
They fail to listen or heed your advice, despite your best efforts.
They fail to show up to court and leave you hanging, making you look foolish.
#18 Pro: Practicing criminal law changes you.
As a criminal defense lawyer, you grow and change as an individual.
You are faced with people going through tough times.
As a result, you develop a greater appreciation for your own life and family.
You understand better the hardships of the people you pass on the street.
Even if you don’t agree with actions people undertake, you understand how it happened and what lead to it.
Life is rarely black and white.
You learn about the gray.
You’ll be a different person as a result of practicing criminal law, and in some ways that’s a good thing.
#19: Practicing criminal law changes you.
As a criminal defense lawyer, your view of the world shifts.
In some ways, this is positive.
In others, not so positive.
Criminal defense lawyers tend to become cynical, and skeptical.
They can become hardened to pain and suffering, and lose perspective about how other people in the world feel about their work.
They may develop biases against people or government agencies (as it happens in reverse).
You’ll be a different person as a result of practicing criminal law, and in some ways that’s not a good thing.
Is Criminal Defense Right For You?
If you are a person who loves variety, learning, a fast paced environment, meeting new people every day, and hard work, you’d find a good home in a criminal defense practice.
If you are a person who wants stability, peace, and a set/reliable schedule, I’m not sure that you’d be happy in as a criminal defense lawyer, even if you are a person who is interested in making a difference.
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