What Is a Criminal Defense Attorney?

June 7, 2024 | By Shane Phelps
What Is a Criminal Defense Attorney?

A criminal defense attorney defends individuals and entities charged with criminal offenses. They counsel and represent clients facing accusations ranging from misdemeanors to serious felonies. 

They ensure that the accused receives fair treatment under the law, protects their rights throughout the legal process, and provides the best chance of achieving a favorable outcome.

If you need to hire a criminal defense attorney, here’s what you need to know: 

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Roles and Responsibilities of a Criminal Defense Attorney

Client Consultation

During the initial consultation, the attorney listens to the client’s account of events and gathers initial details to understand the charges, possible evidence, and the client’s desired outcomes. This stage is pivotal in developing a defense strategy.

Case Analysis

After the consultation, the attorney conducts a detailed analysis of the case. This involves scrutinizing police reports, witness statements, surveillance footage, and forensic evidence. 

They may consult experts or investigators to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case and identify weaknesses or procedural errors they use in the client’s defense.

Legal research is an essential part of defense work. To build a strong defense, attorneys must be familiar with existing statutes, precedents, and local court rules. 

Research involves finding previous cases with similar circumstances, analyzing how courts have ruled in those situations, and identifying legal strategies that could be beneficial for their client.

Plea Bargaining

3D illustration of a legal document with the title "PLEA BARGAIN".

Often, criminal cases find resolution through plea bargains rather than going to trial. The defense attorney negotiates with the prosecutor for reduced charges or a lighter sentence in exchange for the defendant pleading guilty. 

This requires skillful negotiation to obtain favorable terms while ensuring the client fully understands the consequences.

Courtroom Representation

If the case proceeds to trial, the attorney represents the defendant in court. This includes delivering opening and closing statements, cross-examining witnesses, presenting evidence, and arguing legal points before the judge and jury. 

The attorney also prepares the client for what to expect in court, coaching them on answering questions and effectively presenting themselves.

Post-Trial Matters

Even after a trial concludes, a criminal defense attorney may remain involved in post-trial matters, such as filing appeals if the client is found guilty or negotiating terms for probation or parole. 

They might also assist in expunging the client’s record or seeking a reduction in sentencing.

What Training Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Have?

Criminal Law: A judge's gavel as a symbol of the legal system, Themis, the Goddess of Justice, and a wooden stand with the word "Justice" in the background of books.

Lawyers in criminal law are highly trained to handle all legal issues.
Criminal defense attorneys earn a bachelor’s degree before entering law school. 

While no specific undergraduate major is required, pre-law, political science, or criminal justice are popular choices.

  1. Law School Admission Test (LSAT): Law schools require applicants to pass the LSAT. This standardized test measures reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and critical thinking, helping schools gauge candidates’ suitability.
  1. Law School: Completing a Juris Doctor (JD) degree typically takes three years. During law school, students learn foundational legal principles, participate in moot courts, and may intern at law firms or public defender’s offices to gain practical experience.
  1. Bar Exam: After law school, graduates must pass the bar exam in their respective states to obtain a license to practice law. The bar exam tests candidates on state-specific laws and general legal principles.
  1. Gaining Experience: Many attorneys start by working at a public defender’s office or joining private criminal defense firms to gain experience. Public defenders represent clients unable to afford private attorneys, providing new attorneys with exposure to a broad range of cases.
  1. Continuing Education: Criminal defense attorneys must stay informed about new laws, legal precedents, and emerging trends. They attend legal seminars, subscribe to law journals, and take continuing education courses to refine their skills.

Other Relevant Information

A young lawyer or legal advisor opens a notebook, reads legal books, and compares detailed information.

It takes more than education to succeed as a criminal defense attorney. They must also have the talent and aptitude for a life practicing law. 

  • Skills: Effective criminal defense attorneys possess excellent communication and negotiation skills, strong analytical abilities, and empathy for clients under stress. They must think on their feet and adjust strategies quickly in court.
  • Ethical Duties: Defense attorneys must provide competent representation, maintain client confidentiality, and avoid conflicts of interest. They must also ensure that clients understand their rights and the potential outcomes of various legal strategies.
  • Challenges: Criminal defense work can be stressful, particularly when clients face severe consequences like long-term imprisonment or the death penalty. Attorneys must balance their responsibility to defend clients with their ethical obligations and navigate emotionally charged situations.

Criminal defense attorneys play a critical role in the justice system. They ensure that everyone receives a fair trial, regardless of the charges. By providing skilled representation, they help maintain the balance between protecting society and preserving the rights of the accused.

How to Choose a Criminal Defense Lawyer

The right criminal defense attorney can significantly improve the outcome of your case. Finding an attorney with experience in the specific type of offense you’re facing could mean the difference between jail time and freedom.

During your initial consultation, consider the attorney’s experience, reputation, and personal rapport. A good attorney should make you feel heard, understood, and confident in their ability to represent your interests effectively.

Involve a criminal defense attorney as early as possible in the legal process to guide you through interacting with law enforcement and uphold your constitutional rights. Early representation prevents self-incrimination during questioning, lineups, or other proceedings. 

When evaluating potential attorneys, discuss their fees and payment options openly. Some lawyers offer payment plans or sliding scale fees. The consequences of not hiring an attorney will always cost you more than the cost of hiring one.

Remember, choosing the right criminal defense attorney is not just about the legal outcome. It’s also about having an advocate who can provide emotional support and guidance during this challenging time.

If you or a loved one are facing a criminal offense in Bryan or College Station, contact Shane Phelps Law at (979) 775-4100 for your free initial consultation. Let more than 30+ years of experience protect your rights and freedom.

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Shane Phelps Author Image

Shane Phelps

Lead Attorney

As founder of Shane Phelps Law, Bryan/College Station criminal defense attorney Shane Phelps has a reputation as a leading trial lawyer in the Central Texas area. With decades of experience as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney, Shane has tried more than 300 jury trials, everything from DWI to Capital Murder.

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