What Does a Defense Attorney Make

If you or someone you know is currently attending law school, the question of what a defense attorney can potentially earn in annual salary may come up.

There are a number of factors affecting the annual salary of a defense attorney, including experience, time, geographic location, and several others which will be discussed below.

This article aims to helps educate new and would-be lawyers on what they can expect to potentially earn as defense attorneys, while also addressing some of the other questions and concerns surrounding the position. Read on to learn more.

Why Become a Defense Attorney?

Once a person has committed to making the law her or his profession, she or he will eventually decide which course of law to pursue. This is determined by a number of personal and professional factors.

The main thing that often drives law students toward the role of defense attorney is a keenly-developed sense of justice, and a strong desire to protect the rights of others.

Those interested in the law tend to gravitate to one side or the other – defense or prosecution – based on their personality and unique personal experiences. The challenges and role of a defense attorney will appeal to certain types while others will be apt to find the job daunting or off-putting.  

While a defense attorney can make a significant annual salary – considerably more than a prosecuting attorney, in some cases – a person’s core perspectives will strongly influence whether he or she gravitates toward defense or prosecution.

trial in court

That said, there are a number of practical considerations that a person would preferentially become a defense attorney:

  • More Money – as noted above, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers in private practice simply make more money. This will be discussed in detail below.
  • Dedication to the Constitution – the main job of a defense attorney is to protect and uphold the rights of their client. Those who revere the Constitution will find the position of defense attorney uniquely rewarding.
  • Defend Those Who Cannot Defend Themselves – similarly, a defense attorney often defends those who are emotionally or mentally unable to defend themselves. This again is a unique reward to some.
  • Schedule Flexibility – once a defense attorney establishes her or himself, she or he can opt to take certain cases while declining to take others. This flexibility is a luxury that most prosecuting or contract attorneys won’t be afforded.

There are myriad reasons, both ethical and practical, why a person would prefer to become a defense attorney, and many of those supersede the scope of this article.

For the moment, the focus will be on the salary information associated with being a criminal defense attorney, and not the other factors that might propel a person toward the position.

Defense Attorney Experience

Just to give readers an idea of what a defense attorney could reasonably stand to earn in a year, Glassdoor places Criminal Defense Attorney Rates in a range from $54,000 annually all the way up to $200,000 or more per year.

Based on these figures, Glassdoor places the national average salary for a Criminal Defense Attorney at $119,403 for attorneys practicing in the United States.

As you can see, defense attorneys can earn very lucrative salaries once they establish themselves and develop a niche. The available figures indicate that a defense attorney’s salary will gradually increase as they accrue professional experience, generally breaking $100,000 after banking 5-10 years of work experience.

convict on trial

Defense Attorney Area of Expertise

While most law school graduates will be equipped to interpret and practice the law within a broad range of contexts, practicing attorneys will eventually develop expertise within a certain area.

Attorneys often become very well-versed in one particular facet of defense law, and then set their rates accordingly within a given market.

For example, many defense attorneys will eventually specialize in defending clients from DUI (Driving Under Influence) or DWI (Driving While Impaired) charges.

Per Lawyer.edu, the average salary for a DUI/DWI lawyer is $56,000, based on slightly older statistics (2012). This figure may be due to the unfortunate prevalence of DUI cases, as over 1 million people were charged with DUI in 2016 – a number that has not significantly declined in the time since.

For those in law school or considering their career course, as the crackdown on impaired driving escalates, the demand for seasoned DUI defense attorneys is likely to continually increase.

Due to this increase in demand, the earning potential for a good defense attorney is likely to also increase.

This information isn’t meant to dissuade or encourage a prospective or current law student in either direction, only to report that attorneys often settle into a niche, and that the demand for criminal defense attorneys as a whole continues to expand.

Defense Attorney Market and Demand

Like any profession, a number of different factors determine a given market. Because many defense attorneys practice privately and set their own rates, these figures will continually be in-flux.

What can be said is that the overall demand for defense attorney continues to climb.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that there is an overall increase in the demand for defense attorneys, determining that there was a 13% increase in demand from 2012 to 2018.

For numerous reasons, our society has become more litigious than ever, and this is borne out in a number of statistics.  

Cost of living, crime rate, and reputation will all factor to determine what a practicing defense attorney can expect to make in any particular market.

defense attorney

Defense Attorney Geographic Location

As with any profession, geographic location is a major determinant in calculating the potential salary of a defense attorney.

Here is a list of the five highest paying states/districts for defense attorneys, along with corresponding mean annual salaries:

  • District of Columbia ($182,810)
  • California ($162,010)
  • New York ($161,260)
  • Massachusetts ($158,760)
  • Delaware ($157,610)

As you would expect, the states with the highest cost of living and property values also tend to have higher mean salaries for most professions, lawyers included.

Private vs. Public Defense Attorneys

Another factor determining a criminal lawyer’s salary is the division of law he or she decides to enter.

Just to give readers an idea of what different types of attorneys can expect to earn annually:

Prosecuting Attorney

  • >5 years: $57,000
  • 5-10 years: $66,000
  • 10-20 years: $100,000
  • 20+ years: $131,000

Public Criminal Defense Attorney

  • >5 years: $52,000
  • 5-10 years: $69,000
  • 10-20 years: $74,000
  • 20+ years: $94,000

Private Criminal Defense Attorney

  • >5 years: $80,000
  • 5-10 years: $96,000
  • 10+ years: $112,000

These figures are courtesy of Chron.com. 

Again, these are median salaries. As noted earlier in the article, an experienced criminal defense attorney can make nearly double the median expected salary, depending on experience, demand, and location.

It is clear that public defenders can expect to take a salary haircut. But as with most professions, a defense attorney can expect to be steadily increase her or his annual earnings with experience and time.

As Business Insider points out, many lawyers fresh out of law school may have to take jobs in the public defender’s office while they cut their teeth. And as the article reports, a public defense attorney can really take a beating in their first few years, in terms of both finances and stress level.

But there are advantages to becoming a public defender. Many municipalities offer incentive packages to public defenders, such as student loan repayment. This can be a boon to a recent graduate with minimal experience and mounting student debt.

And noting that there’s an undeniable difference in pay scale, the role of a public defense attorney versus that of a private criminal defense attorney is not drastically different. Public defenders still protect the Constitutional rights of their clients and perform the same basic job as private defense attorneys.

So, while the role of a public defender comes with a certain amount of job satisfaction, if a person’s ultimate goal is to make as much money as possible, there’s simply more salary potential as a private criminal defense attorney.

lawyers and convict

Defense Attorney vs. Other Types of Attorneys

The salary range for an average established defense attorney is around $110,000 or so, allowing for all of the mitigating factors mentioned above. But how do defense attorneys stack up compared to other types of attorneys?

A defense attorney making around $100,000-$110,000 is doing quite well compared to most other lawyers, as Payscale determined that the average U.S. attorney in 2018 made about $75,000 annually.

However, there are certain division of law in which attorneys can expect to make more than an average defense attorney might.

The same study from Payscale learned that corporate lawyers from high-ranking law schools can expect average salaries in the range of $165,000 per year, while a 2014 study learned that patent lawyers made a median annual salary of $129,500.

The median criminal defense attorney salary ranked third within this study, just ahead of tax attorneys, who in 2014 made a collective mean annual salary of about $99,000.  

While the primary driver for an aspiring attorney is likely the division of law he or she wishes to practice, earning potential is a legitimate factor. Based on the available statistics, a defense attorney can expect to do well compared to those practicing other areas of law.

Determining a Course of Action

A practicing or prospective defense attorney has a number of things to consider before further plotting their career course, including local pay scale, growth potential within a niche, and the pros and cons of public defense versus private practice.

While all of these factors have respective weight and influence, current and future law students can know that most practicing defense attorneys have an expected salary range, and can accordingly set their expectations.

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