How Much Do Criminal Lawyers Make? (Salary Plus Job Outlook)

By Jennifer Herrity

Updated December 1, 2022 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated December 1, 2022

Published February 25, 2020

Jennifer Herrity is a seasoned career services professional with 12+ years of experience in career coaching, recruiting and leadership roles with the purpose of helping others to find their best-fit jobs. She helps people navigate the job search process through one-on-one career coaching, webinars, workshops, articles and career advice videos on Indeed's YouTube channel.

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Criminal lawyers work with people who have been charged with a crime by the government, either as a prosecuting attorney or as the defendant's legal counsel. Regardless of what side a criminal lawyer works on, it’s their job to argue on behalf of their client's legal interests. People interested in criminal law should be motivated by helping others and promoting justice, but many are also attracted to the role’s high-earning potential.

In this article, we explain what a criminal lawyer does, review the average criminal lawyer salary and compare the salaries of three types of criminal lawyers.

What is a criminal lawyer?

A criminal lawyer is an attorney involved in the prosecution or defense of someone who has been charged with a crime. Unlike civil attorneys, who manage cases where one person sues another to resolve a dispute, criminal attorneys manage cases where someone is being sued by the government for breaking a criminal law.

In their duties as criminal lawyers, they investigate client cases, research evidence, manage paperwork, appear in court and negotiate settlements in addition to other responsibilities. They often work closely with police and witnesses to build their arguments for defense or prosecution.

Related: Learn About Being a Lawyer

Average salary of criminal lawyers

The average salary for all associate attorneys, including criminal lawyers is $79,155 per year. However, a lawyer's salary can be dependent on their level of experience and specialization among other factors. Criminal lawyers who work for the government, such as a public defender at the local level, generally earn lower starting salaries than those who work at a private firm.

Related: 15 Jobs You Can Get With a Criminal Justice Degree

Comparing criminal lawyer salaries

A criminal lawyer's job title has a large influence over how much they can earn. As noted, a criminal lawyer employed by the government will generally earn a lower salary than someone employed at a private practice who has control over how much they charge clients. Here’s a list of the three main types of criminal lawyers and their average salaries:

Public defender

National average salary: $70,016 per year

Primary duties: Public defenders are government employees who are assigned to represent people who do not have private counsel. Their goal is to refute the evidence against their client, argue for lighter sentences and generally advocate for their client's legal needs. They work on all types of case assignments regardless of the type of charges.

Related: Top 11 Pros and Cons of Being a Lawyer

Private defense attorney

National average salary: $87,669 per year

Primary duties: Private defense attorneys are hired by people who have been charged with a crime and do not want a public defender. Some private defense attorneys specialize in a particular type of criminal defense while others work with any type of client. They perform the same duties as a public defender but usually have fewer cases to manage at a time and have more control over their hours and the rates that they charge.

Related: Defense Attorney vs. Prosecutor: What's the Difference?

Prosecutor

National average salary: $100,330 per year

Primary duties: Prosecutors are criminal lawyers who argue on behalf of the state with the goal of proving that a suspect is guilty of the crimes they have been charged with. They conduct criminal investigations, gather case evidence and interview witnesses. They also decide on whether to pursue criminal charges against an individual based on their legal research.

Related: Criminal Law: What It Is and 8 Specializations To Consider

Job outlook for criminal lawyers

Given that criminal lawyers are an essential part of our legal justice system, there’s a consistent demand for quality public defenders, prosecutors and private defense attorneys. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10% employment growth for lawyers in the decade between 2021 and 2031. This translates to an average of 48,700 new job openings each year.

The top industries for lawyers, according to the bureau, are:

  • Federal government

  • Legal services

  • State government, excluding education and hospitals

  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals

Note that criminal law is a highly competitive field, meaning there are more applicants than there are available jobs. People interested in a criminal law career should prepare to be flexible with what kind of jobs they apply for at the beginning of their careers.

Related: The Top 10 Reasons To Be a Criminal Defense Attorney

Ways to earn more as a criminal lawyer

Criminal lawyers can generally increase their pay through experience and developing a strong record of winning court cases. Advanced degrees in a related field can also allow criminal lawyers to negotiate for a higher salary. Like other lawyers, criminal lawyers often work long hours with overtime to build their reputation. Lawyers who work based on an hourly fee or who are paid by each case may take on more work to increase their total earnings.

Related: 7 Types of Criminal Justice Certifications (With Examples)

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