The Average Salary of a Criminal Defense Attorney

Criminal defense lawyers can specialize in particular crimes, such as white-collar crime, to increases their earning potential.
Criminal defense lawyers can specialize in particular crimes, such as white-collar crime, to increases their earning potential. (Image: happy business lady image by Paul Moore from

Criminal defense attorneys' salaries vary depending on location, the type of practice, years of experience and any specialized fields such as white-collar crime, fraud or weapons-related offenses. A new criminal defense attorney may first gain litigation experience by working in a public defender or district attorney office before opening a private firm.


According to, the average salary for a criminal defense attorney varies based on the city of employment. For example, in January 2011, the average annual salary for a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago, Illinois, is $99,578; in Manhattan, New York, $119,993; and in Orlando, Florida, $81,427. Attorneys in smaller towns typically earn less than those in larger cities. Salaries also vary by geographic regions, with those practicing in the northeast earning the most, according to

Public Defender

It's rare for a criminal defense lawyer who has recently graduated from law school to join a law firm, because larger, established firms want to hire attorneys with a litigation background at the criminal level, states Accordingly, some criminal defense attorneys "learn the ropes" by working for public defender offices that provide criminal defense at the local, state and federal levels. reports that in January 2011, nationwide base public defender salaries range from $41,442 to $68,017.

District Attorney Office

Recent graduates of law school might also gain criminal defense litigation experience through a district attorney's office, which is the chief law enforcement and prosecution office for a judicial district. These salaries are typically larger than those in the public defender's office. According to, in January 2011 the nationwide base salary for a district attorney is $49,272 to $80,999, with bonuses $1,021 to $5,098 and profit sharing $55.00 to $2,800.

Private Practice

According to Scott Pactor, a criminal defense attorney in San Diego, California, most criminal defense lawyers are solo practitioners who work on a flat-fee basis, while some larger law firms forward criminal cases to a specific partner. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, criminal defense attorneys with their own businesses typically earn less than partners in law firms. Alternatively, experienced solo practitioners who specialize in a field, such as white-collar crime, can earn upwards of $200,000 annually.

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