How to Be a Prosecutor or Defense Lawyer

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Once an attorney is licensed, she may practice in any area of the law she chooses. Some choose to practice criminal law as either a prosecutor or defense attorney. Prosecutors represent the state or federal government in criminal prosecutions while defense attorneys are charged with defending the person accused of the crime. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys must complete the same education and pass the same examinations. While the qualifications may vary somewhat by state, the process is similar in all states.

Complete a four-year college degree culminating in a bachelor's degree. Your undergraduate degree may be in any field you choose; however, common undergraduate majors for future criminal law attorneys include criminal justice, political science and philosophy.

Earn a Juris Doctorate degree by spending three years in an American Bar Association accredited law school. The basic curriculum is the same for all students during the first two years. Consider taking additional classes in criminal law and procedure as well as trial practice during your final year.

Prepare for, and take, the Law School Admission Test. Law schools rely heavily on your LSAT score when making admissions decisions.

Pass the bar examination and the multi-state professional responsibility examination, or MPRE, in the state where you plan to practice.

Apply for a license in the state where you plan to practice. Along with passing the bar examination and the MPRE, you need to undergo a character and fitness background investigation before being sworn in to practice law. Individual states may have additional requirements. The National Conference of Bar Examiners offers a guide to requirements in all states (see Resources).

Apply for a position as a state or federal prosecutor or public defender. Even if you plan to practice in the private sector as a defense attorney, you will gain invaluable practical experience by working as a public defender first.


While you are in law school, take advantage of any internships, clinics or summer employment in the area of criminal law or trial practice.


Criminal attorneys spend a considerable amount of time in court, so make sure you are comfortable speaking in front of a large group.