Kevin T.’s Answer
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.