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Question About Becoming A Criminal Defense Attorney & Criminal Defense Attorney Salary.

Los Angeles, CA |
Filed under: Criminal defense

I am 20 years old and currently a college student. I am interested in attending law school and becoming a criminal defense attorney, handling state and federal cases, and eventually becoming a certified criminal law specialist by the California Board of Legal Specialization.

My only problem is that my mother objects to me becoming a criminal defense attorney and says that if I am going to spend three years in law school and thousands of dollars I should NOT becoming a criminal attorney but instead an entertainment attorney. She claims that Criminal defense attorneys do not make nearly as good of a salary as entertainment attorneys and that it is very tough to be a criminal defense lawyer. So my questions is, how much can a criminal defense attorney make on average practicing in LA?

Attorney Answers 11

  1. It varies greatly. Some attorneys are doing very well and others are struggling. The following web site will give you an idea of what attorney salaries are by jurisdiction. If you want to know what a government attorney makes like a public defender or prosecutor you can go to the government website for that city or county office and look under job openings where they will list the wage range for level I through level V positions.

  2. In general criminal defense attorneys are not paid as well as successful entertainment lawyers. There are some superstar criminal defense attorneys who make as much as any other kind of attorney. If you go into entertainment law you'll need to achieve superstar status to get rich. So why not follow your heart? The final decision is years away in any event.

  3. Public defenders start at about $52K and can earn over $150K after they've put in a significant number of years. Many private criminal defense lawyer's practice consist in large part of court-appointed cases. They get on a panel and should generally make $100K-$200K with a few years experience. Others have a flourishing practice, filled primarily of privately-retained clients and make far more. As with any other profession, how much you make is also a function of how important money is to you. The more you want to make, the more your career decision will be driven by meeting that goal.

    My advice is choose the area or law that excites you most and has personal meaning for you. It's a great feeling to get up everyday and look forward to work.

  4. I agree with my colleagues: follow your heart.

    What's more, you have many years of school ahead of you before you go into practice; all lawyers take the same core classes during law school, and you don't have to make a firm decision for a long time. Many lawyers also practice in different areas of law during their careers; for example, some take a job as a public defender to get lots of trial experience, then do something else.

    Many people wouldn't enjoy being a criminal defense attorney, but I love what I do, and I would rather be a barrista at Starbucks than do wills & trusts or, god forbid, take a job as a prosecutor. Those may be the right career path for some, but not for me.

    Many lawyers are miserable in their careers, and attorneys have much higher rates of depression and alcohol abuse than the general population. The State Bar Journal, which is sent to every lawyer in California, just published an article on lawyers who are unhappy with their jobs. Click on the link below.

  5. I join with the others in saying follow your heart. But there is a financial consideration, also.

    Law school has become a very expensive undertaking, and you will likely be paying off massive loans for many years. Here's a link to listings of tuitions/room&board for various law schools:
    The tuition for UCLA, for instance is over $36,000 for instate, and over $45,000 for out of state. Per year. Plus room and board and about $1000 for books per semester. Stanford is even more expensive. The best schools are very picky about who they accept, so both your college grades and your LSATs would need to be exceptional. To get a chance at the best jobs, it helps a lot to be going to one of the best schools, do very well there and participate in prestigious extras like Law Review.

    As you see, it would not be uncommon to graduate law school owing well over $100,000, plus undergrad costs. The monthly student loan bill for new graduates can be staggering.

    Many new graduates, as a result of their student loan bills, now cannot afford to take the starting jobs at public defenders' offices or DA's offices (where many future criminal defense lawyers start to get a lot of trial experience, if they can stand being a prosecutor) -- unless they continue to live with their parents for free. (In some states, there is a loan forgiveness or loan payment delay for those who enter certain types of public interest law, but this could change at any time.) The fancy law firm jobs that pay well to start are few and far between, and only offered, if at all, to the top graduates of top law schools; the jobs tend to be corporate law, not litigation. It may not be easy, either, to get a foot in the door in an entertainment law firm. Entertainment law often consists mostly of contract work, which some like well enough, and some, like myself, would detest. Private firms pay what they will, and may or may not pay associates well.

    Follow your heart but be practical as well. Law school is great, but does not set you up for life. In these times, it is even more of an iffy investment. If criminal defense work is what you want the most in the world, go for it. But do not expect to get rich.

    By the way, you may want to visit local law schools and see if they need a juror for mock trial exercises. That could be both interesting and educational for you.

    DISCLAIMER I do not practice law in your state. This answer is provided solely for general informational purposes only. This answer does not constitute legal advice, create an attorney-client relationship, or constitute attorney advertising.

  6. I cannot answer your specific question; however, I may be able to assist you with a bit of perspective. In LA, entertainment law may be more lucrative than criminal defense, but you need to be practicing in an area that you enjoy. At this moment, your focus should be on getting the best GPA while in college and obtaining the highest LSAT score. Those are the two single most important factors for law school admission. As far as practice area, if you do not enjoy what you do, you will not be operating at your best and may not have as many clients as anticipated.

  7. First, don't go to law school if you aren't going to practice law you love. Entertainment law sounds sexy and exciting, but all it is, is preparation of contracts. It's THAT boring.

    Second, your mother has no ability to direct your life. Unless she is going to put up thre, long years in sheer destitution while you study, take your exams for you, and take the bar for you, ignore her.

    First year state public defenders make between $55,000 to $70,000 with full benefits. Some PD's make up to and above$125,000, with full benefits and retirements packkages.

    Depending on how good you are, and how many connections you hae, a private attorney can make several hundred thousnd to even $1 million per year. I settled a federal civil rights case for $400,000 last year. That wasone case, and I got a percentage of tht.

    If you are good, dynamic, and willing to work hard, you can do quit well.

  8. There's one thing you will hear over and over again, and you'll think you can handle it until you find one: NOTHING SUCKS THE LIFE OUT OF YOU QUITE LIKE A JOB YOU TRULY HATE.

    If you let money be your primary motivation in selecting a field of law, you will regret it at some point. But if you let money be your primary motivation to go into law to begin with, you will regret it immediately. It's not for everyone, and if it's not for you it will make you miserable.

    If you do go into law, understand that there is plenty of room in EVERY specialty of law for a good lawyer to make quite a good living. But the key is that you must be good at your selected specialty, which is a lot more likely if you enjoy it.

    I graduated very recently with a debt load so high I can barely understand just how much money it is. I started working for a criminal defense attorney immediately out of law school, and I love it. Because I am interested, I am willing to spend more effort getting better and learning more. That will likely lead to more money, but even if it doesn't, life is GOOD.

    I have classmates who make two to three times what I do at their big firms, but they hate their lives.

    The fact of the matter is that the elite entertainment lawyers make millions, but the same is true of criminal defense lawyers. And just like criminal lawyers, there are entertainment lawyers who scrape to get by. This is true of every field of law.

    If you decide to go into law, find something you like to do, get good at it, and the money will come.

  9. When i was coming out of high school, i either wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. I figured the only way to know what i liked was to see first hand. I volunteered at a local hospital's ER for 4 months and realized it was not for me. When in law school, i worked one summer with a a Civil Litigation firm and i absolutely hated it.
    I realized what i really enjoyed doing, the first time i interned in Criminal Defense. I knew this is where i belonged.
    My advice to you anyone figuring out what to do with their careers is to volunteer at that job and see what you think about it before making a decision.

  10. I have to agree with Mr. Kaman's analysis. If you are miserable at your job, no amount of money will change that. You'll just wear golden handcuffs. Representing the Constitution is one of the most satisfying ways to use a bar card. You won't always like your client (in any practice area) and you won't like the facts all the time, but you're preserving the rights of every person in this country when you preserve and defend the rights of one. Good luck. If you are good at something, the money will follow.

  11. Don't go into criminal defense for the money. If that's your motivation, then please, practice Entertainment Law. The best criminal defense attorneys are social workers with a JD degree in law. It is not easy. It will test your core beliefs. And in the end, you will learn more about yourself than you ever will in Entertainment Law. Isn't that what life is all about?