Criminal Litigation Careers: The Private Defense Attorney
A private criminal lawyer may work in a large or small firm or as a solo practitioner. In general, a criminal lawyer in a law firm will have some area of specialty -- felony cases, for example, or white-collar crime. As the years progress, the criminal lawyer can get very specialized indeed and become known for her representation of corporate clients charged with fraud or rapists or even serial killers. A solo practitioner may also specialize, depending on her resources. Like her counterpart in civil litigation, a solo practitioner will often handle a variety of criminal matters in the beginning of her career in order to establish herself.
Most law school graduates do not become private criminal attorneys in their first year out of law school. Law firms generally look for litigation experience, preferably at the criminal level. They want to hire someone who can bring something to the firm -- either knowledge of the criminal court system, experience with particular defendants or a steady source of clients -- and a private firm or solo practitioner can be choosier about its cases than a public defender. "A prosecutor's office or a public defender job will train you," says one private criminal attorney. "I think by the time you're working here, you need to have some solid trial experience. We don't do that many misdemeanors or violations, so there's not as much to train first-years with."
Firms therefore prefer to hire attorneys who already have the skills and experience to defend their clients. It doesn't really matter that the attorney may have previously been a prosecutor; most firms just want some criminal litigation experience and are not too concerned about which side a lawyer used to represent. It is not uncommon for former prosecutors to switch to defense practice or for defense attorneys to join the U.S. attorney's office. A large percentage of private criminal attorneys, either at firms or working as solo practitioners, have years of prior experience as state or federal prosecutors or defenders. Johnnie Cochran, the lead attorney in the criminal defense of O.J. Simpson, used to work for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office as a prosecutor.
Most criminal defense firms are smaller than their corporate counterparts. A firm of 60 lawyers in three offices is considered a large criminal defense firm, while the attorneys at corporate firms can number in the hundreds. Criminal firms generally have smaller starting salaries. A starting salary of $40,000 or less is not unheard of; on the other hand, an attorney with five years experience could be making double or triple that amount. "I chose this job because I can still do trial law, which I love, while making a decent living," says one criminal defense lawyer. "It's not glamorous, but it's a lot better than the DAs office." All private attorneys -- civil and criminal alike -- have to think about billable hours and can put in extremely long hours at the office. At a more senior level, criminal defense attorneys are expected to bring in cases for their firm. Success in the firm is dependent on many things, but largely on how many cases you win.
Solo practitioners in the criminal field are subject to the same constraints and responsibilities as civil lawyers who have their own practice, in terms of paying staff, rent and keeping a small business afloat. Unlike their civil counterparts, however, they cannot usually count on repeat business from the same clients.