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How to become a Defense Attorney

How to become a defense attorney

How to Become a Defense Attorney

A defense attorney is tasked with advocating for the defendant and protecting his or her rights during the legal process. It takes at least seven years of study to become a defense attorney, of which four years are spent obtaining your undergraduate degree, and three are spent in law school working towards obtaining your law degree, the Juris Doctorate.  Additional time should be spent gaining experience by working under or interning for criminal defense attorneys and in courts that deal with criminal cases.

Obtaining the Undergraduate Degree

There are no requirements regarding the undergraduate course of study, though journalism, psychology and sociology, and political science are commonly taken by pre-law students. Whatever you choose as your field of study, you must maintain a high GPA as it will be used as one of the determining factors for acceptance at the law schools to which you apply.

While you are working on your undergrad, take some public speaking or debate courses. It is very important that you are not only comfortable speaking in front of a group, but that you also develop the skills needed to effectively reach your audience (judge or jury) and motivate them to view your cases in a light most favorable to your client.

The Law School Admission Test – LSAT

The LSAT is generally administered four times a year. The test takes several hours to complete. The LSAT is generally taken by the December before fall admissions period, though many students take the tests earlier in the year. The LSAT is generally offered in February, June, Oct/Nov and December.

Students may take months to prepare for the exam because better scores mean a better opportunity for acceptance into the school of your choice. There are five sections on the test:

  • one that isn’t scored
  • a writing section that isn’t scored but is sent with your scores to the law schools to which you apply, and
  • three skills sections covering logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, and reading comprehension.

Law School Admissions

Most all accredited law schools will require transcripts from all graduate schools, community colleges, or universities that you have attended in the past.

You will also need to submit a personal statement, which is a two- or three-page essay that should include information that is not readily available in your background information. The purpose of this statement is to help the Admissions Committee get a better sense of you are as a person, and how determined you are to achieve your goals.

Your admissions packet should also include a resume with your entire work history, as well as any community service, awards, honors, associations, and involvement in student activities.

Letters of Recommendation are almost always required and these should be written by people, namely employers and professors, who can speak to your moral and ethical character, your determination and competencies, as well as your social skills, academic promise, and intellectual curiosity.

Law Degree Requirements

The law degree, the Juris Doctorate (JD) is obtained after three successful years as a law student. To accomplish this, you will spend the first half of your law school career studying the core components of the law, such as legal writing, civil law, constitutional law, tort law, etc. The second half of law school will be spent on your legal area of focus, including possible mock trials and legal clinics to help you gain some experience before graduating.

State Bar Exams/Multistate Performance Test/ Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam

Depending on the requirement of the jurisdiction where you will practice, you may be required to take the following three exams-


Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam tests your knowledge of the legal ethics codes. You are advised to check the requirements for the bar admission agency for the jurisdiction you want admitted into before you register for the MPRE. The test is designed as a measure of the examinee’s understanding and knowledge of the established rules of professional conduct.


Some states require that the Multistate Performance Test is taken at the same time as the State Bar Exam. This test measures your skills and acuity as a new attorney.


The State Bar Examination must be passed to receive a license to practice law. The 6-hour exam covers a wide range of legal topics and issues, for example, the California State Bar Exam covers:

  • Business law
  • Civil procedure
  • Community property
  • Constitutional law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal law
  • Evidence
  • Professional responsibility
  • Real property
  • Remedies
  • Torts
  • Trusts
  • Wills and Succession

Being a Defense Attorney

Besides being able to argue the law, attorneys must be willing to work more than a 40-hour work week, with additional hours as needed by the firm or the clients. Because it’s difficult to get traction when you first establish a solo practice, new attorneys focusing on criminal defense generally join up with existing firms, either as an employee or by opening a solo practice and accepting cases from other firms. You can end up taking a serious amount of cases from these firms, and working far more than 40- or 50 hours a week.

You might not have considered this but criminal defense attorneys are usually required to travel, be it to meet with clients at home, in the hospital, or in jail or prison, or to conduct legal research and evidence gathering and evaluation to prepare for the courtroom, which you will also have to travel to.

Also outside of their work in the courtroom, a criminal defense attorney is tasked with case preparation and developing an effective argument for the courtroom, which can entail chasing police reports, eyewitness testimony, expert witness testimony, creating courtroom exhibits, gathering additional evidence for arguments against prosecutor’s case, and conducting crime scene analyzations.


  1. LSAT
  2. University of Arkansas School of Law
  3. University of Chicago Law School
  4. National Conference of Bar Examiners
  5. Lewis & Clark Law School
  6. California Bar Exam
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Saul Landesman

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