Criminal lawyers defend and prosecute people who have been charged with crimes by the government. Criminal law is distinct from civil law, in which one party sues another. Most criminal defense lawyers and all criminal prosecutors are government employees and earn a salary. However, some private attorneys provide criminal defense services and generally charge by the hour, day or case.
Prosecutors are lawyers who argue the case for the state and against criminal defendants. According to a national salary survey conducted by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the median entry-level salary for a prosecuting attorney in the United States was $50,000 in 2012. Criminal prosecutors with five years of experience reported a median salary of $61,400, and those with between 11 and 15 years of experience earned a median salary of $76,700 per year.
Public defenders are criminal defense attorneys who are paid to defend citizens accused of criminal acts who are unable or do not wish to pay a private attorney. Public defenders tend to make slightly more than prosecutors, according to the NALP. As of 2012, starting public defenders reported a median salary of $50,500 per year, while those with five years of experience reported salaries of $62,800 and those with between 11 and 15 years earned a median of $78,600.
Private Defense Lawyers
The income of private defense lawyers largely depends on how many cases they take per year, and what they charge. Private defense lawyers who bill hourly typically charge hundreds of dollars per hour, while those who bill daily typically charge thousands of dollars per day. Others may charge flat rates for certain types of cases, such as misdemeanors. As of 2012, the NALP reports that the median annual income for an entry-level private lawyer was $60,000. However, some private lawyers reported starting incomes of $200,000 or more.
Other Factors Influencing Income
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers employed by the federal government tend to earn the highest salaries of any public attorneys, an average of $129,430 per year. By comparison, state attorneys averaged $81,960 and local government attorneys $93,070 per year. Private attorneys reported an average annual income of $137,170 per year. Location was also found to be a distinct factor in expected income for attorneys; those who practiced in the District of Columbia, higher paying than any states, averaged $161,050 per year. Attorneys in Montana, the lowest-paying state, averaged less than half that — $75,730 per year.