The criminal justice system in the United States presumes that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. The system also provides for every citizen to be represented in court by an attorney. If an accused person is unable to pay for his own defense attorney, the court assigns a public defender to him. The role of both a public defender and a private defense attorney is the same.
A defense attorney is an advocate.
The main advocate for an accused person is his defense attorney. The attorney will act on behalf of his client in every way possible, from advising the defendant in regards to the best course of action, to ensuring that the his rights are not violated. The defense attorney is also there to explain every step of the legal process.
If a defendant is found guilty, the defense attorney prepares for sentencing and offers mitigating circumstances to the sentencing judge. For instance, in cases where the defendant has a history of mental illness, or has never committed a crime, the defense attorney can make a case for a lighter sentence. There can be many mitigating circumstances—it’s the role of the defense attorney to find and present them.
A defense attorney is a researcher.
One a defense attorney accepts a new client, he spends time reviewing the case. He reads the police report, reviews evidence, and looks into the background of his client. He may study past cases to find precedent that may help his client. Defense attorneys often hire their own investigators to find evidence or witnesses that can help prove the innocence of the defendant.
A defense attorney is a strategist.
One of main roles of a defense attorney is to determine potential defenses for his client and decide which is the best for the situation. Many times, a case can be argued in several different ways. The defense attorney will look at all of the options and choose the one that he thinks will be most effective. In some cases, a defense attorney may instruct his client to accept a plea bargain.
During court proceedings, the defense attorney finds strategies to persuade a jury of his client’s innocence and create doubt that the defendant is guilty. He may discredit witnesses through their testimony, or discredit evidence through the testimony of experts.
A defense attorney is an advisor.
Throughout the process, the defense attorney gives his client advice. He urges his client not to speak when it won’t be in the client’s best interest. He advises his client about the risks and benefits of accepting a plea bargain or going to court. He also advises his client how to behave, look and speak while in court.
A defense attorney is a negotiator.
Sometimes a defense attorney will advise his client to accept a plea bargain. In this case, the defense attorney will work with the prosecutor to come up with a mutually acceptable agreement. The defense attorney will negotiate the best possible terms for his client.
While practicing law can be financially rewarding, lawyers’ salaries vary quite a bit. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median pay for lawyers in 2010 was $112,760 per year. However, there can be a huge disparity, depending on the field of law in which you practice, and where you live.
Field of Law
Public service lawyers make considerably less money than those in the corporate sector. In 2012, the average entry-level salary for a public defender was $50,500. An attorney with over 11 years of experience could expect to make $78,600 for the same position. Prosecutors working for local government can expect to earn around $50,000 during their first year; slightly more for larger agencies. While these jobs don’t pay nearly as well as some other fields, student loan forgiveness is often part of a new attorney’s hiring package.
First year corporate lawyers can earn as much as $105,000 at a small firm, and as much as $160,000 at a large firm. Competition for the best corporate law jobs is fierce, and the top companies can afford to be very picky. You’ll need to graduate from a top-tier school, such as Stanford or Harvard, have an excellent GPA and an impressive resume (such as clerking for a high-powered judge or being the head of law review).
Some attorneys can make very large incomes. For instance, patent attorneys with several years of experience earn an average salary of over $200,000 per year. Trial lawyers working for wealthy clients can earn very large salaries—ranging from $500,000 to as much as $40 million per year.
Lawyers in cities on the east and west coasts typically earn more money than their colleagues in the middle of the country. The ABA Journal reported that the average salary for lawyers in San Jose during 2012 was $192,020. Those in San Francisco earned $167,130. New York lawyers earned an average of $166,133, and in Washington D.C., the average salary was $153,520. While these wages are higher than those in other cities, the cost of living is also higher and must be factored in.
By comparison, lawyers in Billings, Montana, earned an average of just $82,380. Lawyers in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, earned $86,640. Those in rural, non-metro areas earned still less: as low as $50,000 per year. The cost of living in smaller towns is much less, and the workload of lawyers in small towns may be lighter.
Choosing a Field of Law
There are many fields of law in which to practice. When deciding which to specialize in, consider your strengths and interests, along with the annual median salary for the field.
Prosecutors are attorneys who work for the government on a local, state or federal level. They represent the interests of public safety and work with law enforcement agencies to bring accused criminals to justice.
Once a suspect is arrested, a prosecutor must look at the evidence and decide whether or not to file charges of a crime against the person. Once he makes that determination, he files formal paperwork to charge the suspect with a specific crime or crimes.
It’s the job of the prosecutor to determine which specific charges to file. For instance, if someone has died, the prosecutor looks at the evidence and decides whether to file charges for manslaughter, second degree murder or first degree murder. There are specific evidence requirements for each charge and the penalties differ greatly, so it’s important to choose the correct charge for the crime.
Research and Preparation
After he files charges, the prosecutor continues to research the case. He is responsible for convincing a jury or judge that a suspect is guilty, and must do so using evidence and testimony.
Prosecutors interview witnesses, law enforcement officers and experts, review police files and video or photos and look at evidence collected from the crime scene. They also study past cases and review applicable statutes to ensure that they proceed in accordance with the law.
In many cases, a prosecutor will present a plea bargain to a suspect and his attorney. There are many reasons for a plea bargain. The prosecutor may not feel confident that a jury will vote to convict, so he may opt for a plea bargain, which ensures that the criminal faces some punishment rather than none. Or, if there are extenuating circumstances, such as a first-time offender with a minor, non-violent charge or a large number of current cases, a prosecutor may offer the suspect a plea bargain in order to focus on cases with more serious charges.
Working in Court
In the United States, a person may only be convicted of a crime if the prosecutor can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When a prosecutor takes a case to court, he must convince a jury that the suspect is guilty. He does this by questioning witnesses for the prosecution and cross-examining the defendant’s witnesses. He presents evidence to the jury, including photos, videos, audio recordings and physical evidence. He may also have experts testify so that the jury can understand some of the evidence. For instance, in the case of a shooting, a prosecutor may ask an expert to testify about how he determined that a bullet came from a particular gun.
Once a jury has convicted a criminal, the prosecutor presents a sentencing recommendation to the judge. He may also present the victim(s) or friends and family members of the victim(s) to speak to the judge regarding the impact of the crime.