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What do I need to do to become a defense lawyer.

Im in eighth grade and I've been interested in the law system for as long as I can remember, I'm amazing at debate and literature and do believe I can become a lawyer as long as I work hard. Im in eighth grade so I don't yet understand what I need to accomplish this. I don't know about credits, programs, scholarships, and degrees, and i need to know these thing s before I hit freshmen year. #law-school #criminal-justice #law #lawyer #law-school #attorney #criminal-justice

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Kevin T.’s Answer

Hi Abbie,

Congratulations on knowing what you want to do with your life! I think that is great because it gives you a focus, which helps to drive your choices on the next steps in your life and your career.

In order to become a defense lawyer you've got several general steps ahead of you. First, finish high school, and do as well as you can there. Second, go to college and do your best there. Third, go to law school and take as many criminal law and criminal procedures classes there as you can. Fourth, get hands-on training in court as a trial attorney. The training will be necessary for you to be successful in defending the rights of those accused of crimes.

Each college and law school has its own degree requirements, but in general you will likely spend four years in college and three years in law school completing those requirements.

In college, you will have to chose a "major", which is the subject area that you want to study and in which your degree will be rewarded. If you want to practice criminal law, then a few good majors might be criminal justice, history, American studies, psychology, or English. All of those majors will help you improve your logical analysis, reading and writing skills. And, you can probably even have a double major in two of these if you organize your course selection correctly!

In law school, you will be required to take intro level criminal law classes in your first year, and in your second and third years you will have the option to take additional classes that will help you learn about your chosen field.

My advice would be to go to law school near where you want to live and establish your career. For example, if you know you want to stay in Albuquerque, then going to the University of New Mexico law school would be just fine. You can use your contacts in the community to help get you summer jobs, such as with the local court or with the public defender's office. I would also suggest that you go to the least expensive law school you can find because being a defendant's attorney might not be the most lucrative job right away and you don't want to overburden yourself with law school debt.

Even though you want to be a defendants' attorney, it would make a lot of sense for you to learn the other side too. That is, you might want to spend some time being a prosecutor at the local, state or federal level because knowing how a prosecutor thinks will help you become a better defense attorney. In criminal law, I think it is common for attorneys to "switch sides" like that. For example, there are a lot of former US Attorneys who leave government work and go into private practice to defend people accused of crimes.

Let me say that the skills you want to build early in your career are good reading comprehension, good writing, and good public speaking. You want to be comfortable doing all of those things because they will serve you well when you are trying to convince a jury that your client is innocent of the charges against him or her. So, in high school, join the debate team or the school newspaper or school government. All of these extracurricular activities will help you get comfortable being in the spotlight and learning how to take charge of the situation and act responsibly and respectfully while doing it. Also, I would read books, and read lot of them, including both fiction and non-fiction. Read about how and why our nation's Founding Fathers set up the government like they did and why there are Constitutional amendments against illegal search and seizure and double jeopardy.

In terms of scholarships and how to afford higher education, my guess is that your high school will have a counseling program that has good information on all of this. There are definitely ways to afford school aside from scholarships, like living at home while in college and having a side job while in school. You can also take out loans specifically for your education. So don't let costs get in the way of your goals and dreams.

I hope this gives you some good guidance, but I'm happy to answer any follow-up questions.


Kevin T. recommends the following next steps:

Find a good high school extracurricular activity that will expose you to public speaking or being in the public spotlight.
Read a lot about the history of our government and why we have Constitutional amendments protecting people accused of crimes.
Stay curious. Always ask what you don't know and try to find out the answers to your own questions by talking to people, doing research, and investigating.

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Hannah’s Answer

Hi Abbie,

It's awesome you're thinking about this in 8th grade!

In high school:

- I would consider getting involved in classes or clubs that help you with public speaking. Being comfortable in front of a crowd is a huge part of being a courtroom attorney like a criminal defender. Some examples might be: mock trial, model UN, speech and debate clubs, etc. If it feels scary to jump right into those, you could start by being involved in clubs or classes that encourage group discussion. Even reading aloud in front of the class is super helpful.

- When choosing high school elective classes, anything related to social justice, US history, criminal justice, US politics, or civics would be very helpful.

In college:

- You could either attend community college for 2 years to get all the basic coursework out of the way, then transfer to a 4 year school, or you could go straight to a traditional 4 year school. Choosing community college first shouldn't disadvantage you for applying to law school (and in any event will encourage you to keep your grades up those first two years since you'll need to apply to 4 year schools to finish your degree).

- Choose college course electives focused around criminal justice, social justice, racial justice, political science, human rights, and immigration. It would also be helpful to take college courses in logic and philosophy, as those will help you with the LSATs (the test to get into law school).

- During college, consider having a part-time job or internship with a community organization or criminal justice related non-profit.

In Law School:

- There will be lots of opportunities to focus on criminal law in your coursework, but consider pursuing practical experience in a victim's rights clinic or defense clinic. These will sometimes give you course credit, but in any case give you invaluable experience for setting out after law school!

Good luck!

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Kim’s Answer

Kevin gave you an awesome answer, I just want to add a little to it. I retired as a police officer, and began helping an attorney who did some criminal defense and Civil Rights cases. I thought that "Switching sides" would be difficult. It wasn't. I quickly got into the idea that I was supposed to do my best for the client. I enjoyed it! And, my experience as an officer allowed me to show the attorney things he had not previously considered. Knowing the opponent's thought processes is important - I second the idea of starting out as a prosecutor. Lots of attorneys do it.

HS/college education: speech, debate, acting (yes, possibly). Look for a college class called Logic. Also, learn the parts of speech, grammar rules, etc. REALLY learn them. I've seen many cases that had to do with interpreting grammar and I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about!

In college, you have a lot of options as to what classes you take. Use them wisely. For example, most people take - US Government. But, if you read the list of what classes can be substituted, you might find - History of the US Constitution. The same for English. Rather than English I and English 2, you might be able to take a course on Latin vocabulary (gosh, is there tons of Latin in Law!). These are just examples. Don't be too quick to make your selections. Read the options carefully. Also, regardless of your major, many schools have Pre-Law Advisors to help you with your selections.

Criminal Law is interesting because it can touch on so many areas. If the case revolves around whether or not the client was intoxicated, you might need to understand how alcohol affects the body, and what other factors contribute (weight, food consumption, etc). If it concerns a traffic fatality, you might need to understand about stopping distances, how brakes work, weather conditions, type of road surface, etc. Or, if it concerns cyber crimes, you need to understand computers. Many criminal defendants are not financially well-off, and not every criminal defense attorney can afford to retain expensive experts. Don't shy away from the sciences!

Also while in college: learn and practice good study and note-taking skills. Try to stay up to date in all your classes, doing your readings prior to class. Law school is tough. You need to be ready.

Look into joining Toastmasters. Not sure how old you have to be, possibly adults-only. It's a group that meets to practice public speaking skills. Like a club.

Thank you for wanting to go into criminal defense, and best of luck to you!