How Much Do Criminal Lawyers Make?

Have you ever wondered how much those slick, smooth-talking criminal defense attorneys make? You know, the ones on TV who get guilty clients off the hook? Well, let’s take a look at the salaries behind the scenes for real-life criminal lawyers.

What is a Criminal Lawyer?

Criminal lawyers work on behalf of people or entities facing criminal charges or under criminal investigation. They advise clients on the law, represent them in court, and negotiate punishments.

Education Requirements

Becoming a criminal lawyer takes extensive schooling and determination. First, you must complete a bachelor’s degree, typically in a subject like criminal justice, political science, or pre-law. Then, you have to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam to practice law.

Overall, it takes 7 years or more of post-high school education to become a criminal lawyer. It’s a huge investment of time and money, which is why the payoff can be so lucrative.

Day-to-Day Responsibilities

The day-to-day work of a criminal lawyer might include:

  • Meeting with clients to discuss charges and build a defense strategy
  • Researching relevant laws, cases, and evidence
  • Interviewing witnesses to ascertain information
  • Negotiating with prosecutors over plea deals
  • Making arguments in court and examining witnesses
  • Drafting appeals for clients who’ve been convicted
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It’s often busy, stressful work with high stakes on the line.

Average Salary for Criminal Lawyers

Many factors determine how much a criminal lawyer earns. However, we can look at average salaries to get a general idea.

Entry-Level Salaries

Criminal lawyers just starting out in their careers typically make between $50,000 to $75,000 per year. The lowest paid 10% earn around $42,000 or less.

So earning potential is decent even early on, although student debt can offset income. With experience, salaries steadily climb.

Mid-Career Salaries

After 5-10 years as a criminal lawyer, average pay ranges from $75,000 – $150,000. The exact amount depends on factors like employer, specialty, and location.

The median salary for all lawyers with 5-9 years of experience is around $108,000 per year. Criminal lawyers often fall close to that median point.

Late-Career Salaries

Experienced criminal defense attorneys with 10+ years under their belts commonly make $100,000 to $200,000+ per year. The top 10% in the field earn in excess of $208,000 annually.

Some celebrity criminal defense attorneys boast seven-figure salaries, but they’re outliers. For most, six-figure annual earnings are realistic with enough drive and success.

Factors That Influence Criminal Lawyer Salaries

Several key factors impact how much a criminal lawyer earns each year:

Type of Employer

  • Private practice – Attorneys in private practice tend to earn more than public defenders. They’re able to take on more clients and charge higher rates. Salaries in private practice often exceed $100,000 per year.
  • Public defense – Public defenders who represent indigent clients often earn around $50,000 to $75,000, on par with early-career lawyers. The work can be rewarding but isn’t highly paid.
  • Government – Prosecutors working for government agencies like district attorneys’ offices have median salaries around $65,000-$85,000. Pay is lower than private practice but benefits tend to be good.
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Years of Experience

As illustrated earlier, salaries steadily rise with more years on the job. Lawyers build reputations over time and increase their billing rates. The most seasoned attorneys command the highest pay.

Reputation and Expertise

Criminal lawyers who handle high-profile, complex cases earn more. A strong track record of successful trial outcomes or plea bargains boosts pay. Attorneys who specialize in areas like tax law or forensics also earn more.

Geographic Location

The city and state where a lawyer practices impacts salaries:

  • New York – $181,000 average salary
  • California – $174,000
  • Florida – $150,000
  • Illinois – $121,000

Areas with a higher cost of living and more large law firms pay attorneys more. Rural areas offer lower average pay.

Bonuses and Benefits

In addition to generous base salaries, many criminal lawyers receive bonuses and other monetary benefits, such as:

  • Case bonuses for wins at trial
  • Signing bonuses for partners at firms
  • Profit sharing from successful practices
  • Retirement contributions and 401K plans
  • Health, dental, and vision insurance
  • Life and disability insurance
  • Reimbursement for cellphone, travel, and meals

While their work is demanding, financial rewards for criminal attorneys are substantial.

Job Outlook for Criminal Lawyers

The job outlook for criminal lawyers over the next decade is projected to grow 7% from 2020-2030, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is similar to average job growth across all occupations.

Demand for criminal lawyers will spring from individuals and corporations who require representation amid criminal charges, lawsuits, and government investigations. A lawyer with outstanding expertise in criminal defense will enjoy strong job prospects.

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Law school enrollment has declined in recent years, so fewer graduates are entering the job market. This also bodes well for those pursuing a career as a criminal lawyer.


Criminal lawyers earn comfortable salaries, even early in their careers, with pay potential topping $200,000 or more later on. The most successful criminal defense attorneys can command especially high salaries.

While educational requirements are demanding, lucrative career rewards exist. For those willing to undertake 7+ years of post-high school education and consistently deliver skilled legal services, working as a criminal lawyer can be monetarily well worth the effort.


How long does it take to become a criminal lawyer?

Becoming a criminal lawyer takes 7 years or more of education after high school – 4 years for a bachelor’s degree, then 3 years of law school. You must also pass the bar exam to practice law.

Do public defenders make good money?

Public defenders who represent clients unable to afford legal fees typically earn $50,000 to $75,000 annually. The work is noble but pay is modest compared to private practice.

Who is the highest paid criminal lawyer?

Some top celebrity criminal defense attorneys like Jose Baez and Mark Geragos command multi-million dollar salaries from high-profile cases. However, most criminal lawyers earn between $50,000 – $200,000 per year.

Do criminal lawyers make more than civil lawyers?

On average, criminal lawyers earn approximately $10,000 to $20,000 more per year compared to civil attorneys. However, pay differences depend on factors like specialty, firm size, and location.

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