So you want to be a criminal lawyer...

How Much Does a Criminal Lawyer Make?

I get asked this question a lot and before I answer, I need to know what you are thinking in asking this question.  Most people that ask this question are making a logical mistake. The better way of asking this question is to ask: how much does a criminal lawyer make compared to an alternative career that I could actually pursue and be successful at?

When I speak to law students that are pondering this question, very often in their mind they want to compare what a criminal lawyer would make with, for example, a corporate lawyer or a civil litigator or a personal injury lawyer.  But this comparison is, in my view, flawed. Just think about it for a moment. When you ask this question, do you compare the earnings of a criminal lawyer with the earnings of an oncologist or cardiologist? No, because if you are contemplating becoming a criminal lawyer, you probably had very little chance of succeeding as an oncologist or another kind of doctor.  It is my contention that if you are truly cut out for criminal law, you have very little chance of succeeding as another kind of lawyer.

Are you the kind of person that thinks it sounds interesting or even fun to go visit an accused person in jail who is charged with a serious crime?  Can you picture yourself running a jury trial? Frequently running provincial court trials? Are you interested in researching criminal law issues and making legal arguments?  A corporate lawyer, and in most cases any other kind of lawyer, will almost never do these things. The problem here is the term “lawyer”, which I have previously argued is a term like “athlete”.  There are heavyweight boxers and there are ping pong players that both go to the Olympics and are called “athletes”, but there is absolutely no overlap between what they do in terms of their training and the sport they play.  The term “athlete” should not confuse and neither should the term “lawyer”.

So, how much does a criminal lawyer make?  It depends what you mean. If you are, like I was, sitting in a law school class and want to be a criminal lawyer and have no interest in anything else, it is pointless and illogical to consider what corporate lawyers or civil litigators are making and compare what a criminal lawyer makes.  The real question if you are in law school is: do your abilities and interests lie within the distinct realm of criminal law? You need to answer this question if you want to be a criminal lawyer. Criminal lawyers are a unique breed of people and if you are truly one and you try another area of law, you will be struggling against your nature and are very unlikely to be successful.

If the answer to the above question is that your abilities and interests do lie within the distinct realm of criminal law, I have two answers to the common question ‘how much does a criminal lawyer make?’ First, you can make a very good living and there is no limit to what you can earn.  But even if I concede that a criminal lawyer makes, on average, less than other types of lawyers you have to ask yourself a second question: what alternatives, thinking honestly and realistically about yourself, do you really have? It did not take me very long to conclude that within the legal profession, I had about as much chance of succeeding as another kind of lawyer as I did a doctor or engineer.  Once I answered this question for myself, I stopped worrying or caring about what other kinds of lawyers were earning. And I have never looked back.

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