Criminal Lawyer Education and Training Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a criminal lawyer. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about schooling, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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Criminal lawyers defend their clients during criminal cases. This often includes conducting research, interpreting laws, and presenting facts in court. Criminal lawyers are required to have a Juris Doctor, pass a bar examination, and obtain state licensing.

Essential Information

Criminal lawyers specialize in the defense of individuals who have been accused of committing a crime. They research cases, represent clients in court and negotiate punishments. Prospective criminal lawyers typically complete seven years of full-time study at an accredited university and law school, pass the bar exam and secure licensure before practicing law.

Required Education Juris Doctor
Other Requirements Pass a bar examination, character evaluation and background test; most states also require continuing education
Licensure Required by state law
Projected Job Growth* 6% for all lawyers (2014-2024)
Median Annual Salary* $115,820 for all lawyers (2015)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Education Information for Criminal Lawyers

The path to becoming a criminal lawyer starts with an undergraduate degree from a 4-year college or university. Though many schools offer a pre-law curriculum targeted towards future lawyers, there is not a specific bachelor's degree required for this field. A potential criminal lawyer may benefit from classes in government, history, economics, public speaking or sociology. Law school admissions are very selective, so applicants should try to complete a well-rounded undergraduate program with high grades.

After earning a bachelor's degree, prospective criminal lawyers must apply to, and attend, a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or their state bar authorities. Admission requirements typically include high Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores, undergraduate transcripts, work experience, letters of recommendation and a personal interview.

Law School

Once enrolled in a law school, students complete a 3-year program that combines core courses, specialized courses in criminal law and practical experience; many programs also include internships. Criminal law classes typically cover research and writing for criminal law, working with evidence, litigation strategies and ethics in criminal law. Most programs also require students to fulfill writing, general ethics and professionalism requirements as well. Upon completion, law school graduates receive a Juris Doctor (J.D.) and are eligible to take the state bar exam.

Continuing Education and Licensure

Lawyers are required to pass the bar exam before practicing law. Bar examinations are administered by individual state agencies and only license the individual within that state. The test is given nationwide twice a year. Students must typically pass a character evaluation and background test before being granted admission to the bar.

Most states also require lawyers to meet continuing education requirements in order to stay up-to-date on developments in the legal fields and law changes. These courses may be taken through national and state bar associations, law schools or even on the Internet.

Training Recommendations

While in law school, prospective criminal lawyers should take advantage of any clinical programs and training opportunities available. A clinical program allows students to work in the law school's legal clinic and provide free legal advice and services to other students, under the supervision of the program professor.

Most schools provide other training options in which students work directly with a law professor or experienced lawyer, such as through internships in a law firm, mock trial competitions or writing for the school's law journal. Students seeking additional experience may also secure a part-time job as a law clerk or research assistant.

Becoming a criminal lawyer requires an undergraduate degree, a Juris Doctor, passing a bar examination, and obtaining state licensing. After completing an undergraduate degree, law school is typically a 3-year program. Some states require continuing education to maintain up-to-date knowledge of laws.

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