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I want to be an defense attorney, Do I have to become a prosecutor first?

I have been in the law program since 6th grade I've always known what I wanted to do. I was hoping I didn't have to be a prosecutor first because I want to help innocent people stay out of jail. law-practice law-school enforcement lawyers law

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Kim’s Answer


No, you don't have to be a prosecutor first. BUT, it really helps. You will learn the plea bargaining system from the inside, what they are willing to do, what contributing factors they consider, etc. You will also get to know the attorneys you will later be arguing against, and hopefully, establish a bit of a working relationship with them. These are all critical factors to your success as a defense attorney. I know right now the thought of working on the wrong side of the law is unconscionable, however, it is for the greater good.

Can you be a good defense attorney without being a prosecutor first? Absolutely. If you are able to secure a position with a good criminal defense firm, and someone there mentors you the first year or so.

One word about "innocent" people. There are many truly innocent people who fall victim to the criminal justice system. Then there are those who swear up and down they are innocent, but. . . . ? Clients will lie to you. Convincingly. Looking you square in the eye.

Another problem is if a truly innocent person is offered a good plea bargain, they will often take it rather than run the risk of losing in court. This is a very sad part of our justice system. As a criminal defense attorney, your job is to do what is best for the client - not, "to win." You cannot promise them that you will be successful in court. You will give them their options, along with your best advice, and they will decide which way to go. The reality is, very very very few cases ever go to trial.

I did some freelance work in criminal defense/ civil rights law, not as an attorney, more like a paralegal. We had a case in which the police swore, in court, there was no dash cam video because the video system was not working. They swore our client dropped drugs from the wristband of his jacket. We introduced evidence including - the dash cam video that they swore did not exist, information about the lighting (it was dark, outdoors, etc), and the fact that our client was wearing SHORT sleeves, no jacket, so could not have possibly dropped the drugs from his jacket sleeve. We still LOST this jury trial case.

You may want to look into the work of the Florida Innocence Project. There may be some way you can volunteer with them at some point in your career.

good luck in your career!

thank you this information was so helpful but how did you feel after losing a case where you had such strong evidence your client was innocent? Erica B.

After losing, you feel like you got punched in the gut. Our client was shifty when seated at the defense table. Could be for lots of reasons. I know I wouldn't be able to maintain a proper image while going thru a trial. You just keep going. But, this is why the plea bargain is so important. The justice system has room for improvement. Until then, we work with what we have. Not trying to scare you off, it's just the reality in which we live. It could be you want to explore other related careers, such as crime victim advocate? Kim Igleheart

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Kyle’s Answer

You do not need to be a prosecutor before you can be a defense attorney. So long as you pass the bar exam you are eligible to practice in any area of law. If you want to go straight out of passing the bar exam and open your own law office you may do so. Some find success doing that, most prefer to start their practice under another experienced attorney.

If you want to practice criminal defense you have to ask if you want to operate as a private attorney, or if you would like to work as a public defense attorney. In either career having experience as a prosecutor does help prepare you for a career as a defense attorney. The same can be said for the reverse, that working in criminal defense could give you experience relevant to becoming a prosecutor.

If you work in private practice, individual clients will sign a contract to hire you as their attorney. Some may view your experience as a prosecutor as beneficial, knowing how a prosecutor's office operates from the inside. Other clients may be distrustful of that experience thinking that you're willing to "switch sides." Others simply won't care. If applying to a public defender's office you will have to explain why you worked as a prosecutor, and why and how you are willing to defend indigent clients.

I would advise the best practice would be to get an internship with a public defender's office while in law school. Work with them during your summers, try to get class credit by working with them during the semester. You will get experience working in criminal defense rather than criminal prosecution. You will be able to see attorney-client interactions and learn about the concerns of defendants. And you won't have to worry about a defense attorney looking to hire you and questioning your commitment to defense.
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Jonathan’s Answer

No, but it helps. I have high school classmate of mine that started at a NY firm and then became an AUSA before returning to private practice as a criminal defense attorney. It's not necessary, but it helps. You get to build relationships and get experience which can lead to better clients or business.