The Average Annual Salary of a Defense Lawyer

by Rick Suttle

Defense lawyers represent juveniles and adults in courts of law. They interview their clients and eyewitnesses to crimes or accidents, research facts on similar cases and find evidence that may help their clients in courtrooms. Most work for law firms, corporations or in their own private practices. Defense attorneys average around $90,000 annually.

Salary and Qualifications

The average annual salary for a criminal lawyer was $78,500, according to 2012 data from Most earn between $45,000 and $130,000, depending on experience, location and the size of their employers. In 2013, the job site Indeed reported an average annual salary of $89,000 for defense lawyers. To become a defense lawyer, you need to complete a four-year bachelor's degree and three-year law degree, earning a juris doctor or J.D. degree. You must then pass the American Bar Association examination to earn your law license. In Connecticut, a passing score is 264 out of 400, according to the State of Connecticut Judicial Branch. Other states have comparable qualifications. Employers may also prefer hiring defense lawyers with two or more years of industry experience. Other essential requirements for this job are analytical, research, communication, problem-solving and computer skills.

Salary by Region

In 2013, average salaries for defense lawyers varied the most within the West region, according to Indeed, where they earned the lowest salaries of $59,000 in Hawaii and highest of $97,000 in California. Those in the Northeast made $77,000 to $108,000 per year in Maine and New York, respectively. If you worked as a defense lawyer in Louisiana or Washington, D.C., you'd earn $76,000 or $106,000, respectively, which represented the lowest and highest earnings in the South region. In the Midwest, you'd make the least in South Dakota and Nebraska and most in Illinois -- $67,000 or $97,000, respectively.

Contributing Factors

Defense lawyers earn more in New York and Washington, D.C., because of higher housing and living costs. For example, if you earned $90,000 as a defense lawyer in Portland, Maine, you'd need to make $188,321 in New York City to maintain the same living standard, according to CNN Money's "Cost of Living" calculator. In Washington, D.C., you'd have to earn $117,267 for the same reason, or approximately 30 percent more. You may also earn more at a larger law firm, which likely has a higher revenue base to support your higher salary.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10 percent growth rate in employment for lawyers, including defense lawyers, through 2020. Individuals and businesses will continue to need all types of lawyers, which may increase job opportunities for defense lawyers in the next decade. Law graduates will face stiff competition for jobs. You may consider looking for a job as a defense attorney by contacting temporary employment agencies, which many law graduates who can't find jobs have been doing in the 21st century.

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