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Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer Salary: How Much Do They Make?

federal criminal defense lawyer salary

Working as a federal criminal defense lawyer is a fulfilling career for many different reasons. Not only do federal criminal defense lawyers get to spend decades honing their craft while witnessing (and perhaps influencing) changes in the law first-hand, but they get to do so while helping people who are facing potential life-altering consequences. Due to its combination of complexity and consequences, the practice of federal criminal defense is unique within the legal field, and it takes the right type of lawyer to build a successful practice in this area.

But, we aren’t here to talk about the intrinsic value of becoming a federal criminal defense lawyer. We’re here to talk about the bottom line: How much do federal criminal defense lawyers make? In this article, we’ll discuss some sample salary figures as well as 10 factors that will impact how much a federal criminal defense lawyer can expect to earn from his or her practice.

Sample Salary Figures for Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you search online, you will find several websites that provide information about federal criminal defense lawyers’ salaries. Most of these sites provide average figures, and some provide high-range and low-range annual figures. Here are some examples:

  • According to ZipRecruiter, federal criminal defense lawyers make an average of $78,801 per year.
  • According to Law Crossing, the average salary for federal criminal defense lawyers is $117,600 per year.
  • According to Career Explorer Guide, the average salary for criminal defense lawyers (state and federal) with five years of experience is $104,724. For those with two to five years of experience, the average is $91,027; and, for those with less than two years of experience, the average is $77,803.
  • According to Salary.com, criminal defense lawyers (state and federal) have an average salary in the range of $77,803 to $104,724 per year (mirroring the figures published by Career Explorer Guide).

As you can see, there is quite a lot of variation between the figures published by different websites. Also, when considering the relevance of these sample salary numbers, there are several important factors to keep in mind. First and foremost, these are average figures only. Some federal criminal defense lawyers make less, and some make significantly more. For example, while Comparably reports an average salary of $136,780, it also notes that salaries, “range from $25,170 to $675,325 , with a median salary of $121,653 [and the] middle 57% of Criminal Defense Lawyers makes between $121,657 and $305,562, with the top 86% making $675,325.”

10 Factors that Will Impact a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Salary

What accounts for all of this variation? There are several factors that will impact a federal criminal defense lawyer’s salary. Here are 10 of the most important factors that will determine a federal criminal defense lawyer’s base annual compensation:

1. The Lawyer’s Overall Years of Experience

Experience is among the most-important factors that will determine a federal criminal defense lawyer’s salary. As with most careers, as a lawyer gains experience, the lawyer’s salary will increase commensurately. In fact, over the course of their careers, federal criminal defense lawyers’ salaries can change drastically. Even if a federal criminal defense lawyer starts out with a five-figure income, the lawyer could easily be earning in the high six figures annually by the end of his or her career.

2. The Lawyer’s Experience in Federal Criminal Cases

While overall experience is a key factor, relevant experience is even more important in many respects. In fact, this will bleed into several of the other factors we discuss below. As we mentioned above, federal criminal defense is a unique area of practice, and even a highly-experienced state criminal defense lawyer won’t necessarily be able to jump into defending clients in federal cases at a high level.

As a result, it is certainly possible for a lawyer who has less overall experience to earn a higher salary than a lawyer who has been practicing for longer but who has only recently transitioned to practicing federal criminal defense. When it comes to achieving successful results in federal criminal cases, it doesn’t necessarily matter that a lawyer has been admitted to practice for 30 or 40 years. What matters is that the lawyer understands the laws, procedures, and strategies that are relevant to helping his or her clients avoid unnecessary consequences.

3. The Types of Federal Cases the Lawyer Handles

Within the area of federal criminal defense, there are numerous subareas of practice. Defending clients against federal drug charges and murder charges is very different from defending clients against charges of health care fraud and securities fraud, for example. While no one area of federal practice is inherently “better” than any other, cases that involve more sophisticated issues and the defense of corporate clients will generally command higher fees—which will in turn translate to higher salaries for federal criminal defense lawyers.

4. The Size of the Lawyer’s Firm

Firm size is a relevant factor when it comes to federal criminal defense lawyers’ salaries as well. It is no secret that big law firms typically pay more than one and two-lawyer offices. However, due to the unique nature of federal criminal practice, many smaller and mid-sized firms have carved out niches in this space. These “boutique” firms often work with a high volume of sophisticated clients, and they are able to compensate their lawyers accordingly.

5. How Much Business the Lawyer Creates for the Firm

As lawyers progress in their career, they are expected to generate business for their firms. The ability to generate business is a key factor in lawyers’ compensation and their ability to make partner—which go hand-in-hand in many cases.

There are a number of ways that lawyers can generate business, and there are seminars and coaching services lawyers can utilize to help grow their client lists. Ultimately, if a lawyer isn’t generating enough work to cover a higher salary, then his or her earning capacity will be limited.

6. The Lawyer’s Case History

A lawyer who has an extensive case history in federal criminal matters will generally be able to command a higher salary than a lawyer whose case history is limited. This is related to, though not necessarily in lockstep with, a lawyer’s experience. Some lawyers are more efficient than others, and some have more success than others as well. So, while the length of a lawyer’s career is a relevant factor, the lawyer’s production during his or her career is generally more important.

7. The Lawyer’s Reputation

If a lawyer has a strong reputation in the federal defense bar, this can provide significant leverage in salary negotiations. The lawyer may have several firms vying for his or her services, and the lawyer will be able to use this to his or her advantage.

Typically, a lawyer’s reputation is gained through experience and results. Publishing articles and gaining media exposure can enhance a lawyer’s reputation as well. In many cases, a lawyer’s reputation can influence what happens during clients’ federal investigations, in settlement negotiations, and in litigation. This has significant value; and, as a result, it can have a significant influence on a lawyer’s salary.

8. The Lawyer’s Capabilities

Clients are willing to pay for success, and this means that law firms are willing to pay lawyers who can consistently deliver positive results. Federal criminal defense lawyers who are able to routinely achieve favorable outcomes during investigations, grand jury proceedings, and criminal trials will provide firms with strong selling points, and they will usually see their salaries rise the fastest.

9. The Geographic Location Where the Lawyer Practices

Geography is an important factor for determining federal criminal defense lawyers’ salaries. For example, ZipRecruiter reports that major cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. are among the locales with the highest average salaries for federal criminal defense lawyers.

Additionally, Comparably reports that while federal criminal defense lawyers’ base salaries are increasing in some cities, they are decreasing in others. The site reports that average salaries are on the rise in Denver, New York, and Seattle, while they have decreased slightly in Austin, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

10. The Lawyer’s Assumption of a Partnership or Leadership Role

Finally, we touched on partnership briefly, but it is work addressing on its own. As lawyers advance in their careers, becoming a partner, and then taking on a leadership role such as managing partner, can have a significant impact on their overall compensation. For many lawyers, making partner is one of their primary career goals—specifically because of the financial benefits it affords. With that said, many boutique firms offer highly attractive compensation packages to their non-partner attorneys, and lawyers must ultimately choose the career path that makes the most sense for their personal ambitions, wants, and needs.

Contact Oberheiden P.C. | Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers Serving Clients Nationwide

Oberheiden P.C. is a federal criminal defense law firm that represents individual and corporate clients nationwide. If you need to speak with a federal criminal defense lawyer, or if you are interested in joining our nationwide network of lawyers and consultants, please call 888-680-1745 or contact us online today.

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