Home Law The Difference Between a Defense Attorney and a Trial Lawyer

The Difference Between a Defense Attorney and a Trial Lawyer

Defense Attorney Definition

A defense attorney, also known as a criminal defense lawyer or defense lawyer, is a legal professional who represents individuals and entities facing criminal charges or under investigation by law enforcement. Their role is to advocate for the best interests and legal rights of their client.

defense attorney

What is a Defense Attorney ?

A defense attorney’s primary responsibilities include:

– Meeting with new clients to understand their case and circumstances
– Researching case details and applicable laws
– Formulating defense strategies
– Advising clients on legal rights and plea options
– Negotiating with prosecutors for reduced charges or sentences
– Drafting and filing motions contesting various aspects of the case
– Representing clients in bail hearings and pretrial proceedings
– Selecting jurors and witnesses for trial
– Presenting evidence and examining witnesses during trial to rebut the prosecution’s claims
– Making arguments to persuade judges and juries toward desired verdicts

In short, defense attorneys use their knowledge of the law, litigation skills, and persuasive abilities to build the strongest case possible on behalf of their clients. Their goal is achieving the best outcome given the charges and circumstances, whether that means reduced penalties, dismissed charges, or an acquittal.

Trial Lawyer Definition

A trial lawyer, also known as a litigator or trial attorney, is a lawyer who represents plaintiffs or defendants during the trial stage of civil litigation cases. These legal cases involve disputes between people and/or organizations rather than criminal charges.

Trial Attorney Explained

A trial attorney’s key responsibilities include:

– Meeting with clients to assess case merits and strategy
– Determining strongest legal causes of action or defenses
– Conducting motion practice and discovery procedures
– Researching case law and preparing pleadings/briefs
– Taking depositions and interviewing expert witnesses
– Presenting opening and closing arguments at trial
– Examining and cross-examining witnesses at trial
– Making objections and arguments to persuade the judge or jury

In essence, trial lawyers utilize excellent communication skills, legal expertise, critical thinking, and trial advocacy abilities to build the strongest case possible on behalf of plaintiffs seeking compensation or defendants avoiding liability. Much of their work happens outside the courtroom through investigation, research, discovery procedures, depositions, and settlement negotiations. But they serve a crucial role during the actual civil trial stage fighting to achieve the best outcome for their client.

Comparing Roles: Defense Attorney vs Trial Lawyer

While defense attorneys and trial lawyers litigate on behalf of clients in an adversarial legal system, some key differences exist:


Defense attorneys represent clients facing criminal charges, while trial lawyers represent clients in civil disputes seeking compensation or avoiding liability.

Court Type

Defense attorneys argue cases in criminal court before judges or juries aiming to minimize penalties under criminal statutes. Trial lawyers bring civil cases in civil court before judges or juries aiming to prove liability and seek damages through civil litigation.

Burden of Proof

Prosecutors must establish guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal cases, a very high standard. Plaintiffs in civil litigation need only show a “preponderance of evidence” pointing liability to the defendant, a lower threshold.


The defense attorney’s ultimate goal is reduced penalties or acquittal on criminal charges. The trial lawyer’s goal is achieving some amount of monetary compensation for plaintiffs or avoidance of liability for defendants in civil disputes.


Defense attorneys negotiate plea bargains with prosecutors, agreeing to admit guilt often for reduced sentences. Trial lawyers engage in settlement talks with opposing counsel, agreeing to compensation amounts or dismissal of claims to avoid trial.

Trial Work

During trials, defense attorneys work to raise reasonable doubt on guilt in prosecutors’ arguments. Trial lawyers make arguments establishing legal claims or rebutting opposing evidence to persuade judges and juries regarding liability and compensation.

Cases Handled

Defense attorneys handle a wide variety of criminal cases including:

– Violent crimes (murder, assault, domestic violence)
– Sex crimes
– Drug crimes
– White collar crimes (embezzlement, fraud, insider trading)
– Driving violations
– Federal charges
– Other common criminal cases

Trial attorneys litigate various civil law disputes such as:

– Personal injury and medical malpractice
– Product liability
– Breach of contract
– Insurance claims
– Employment matters including wrongful termination
– Divorce and child custody
– Malpractice against other professionals
– Property disputes between businesses or individuals

How Clients Choose Between Defense vs Trial Attorney

Those needing legal help choose between criminal defense or civil trial lawyers depending on the nature of their case:

– If facing criminal investigation or charges, hire a knowledgeable defense lawyer to advocate for rights.
– If injured physically/financially by another’s actions, retain an experienced trial lawyer to explain options in pursuing compensation through civil court.
– Consult initial free consultations then decide which type of lawyer suits your dispute or charges.
– Defense lawyers cannot file civil claims directly and trial lawyers do not defend criminal cases.

When to Hire a Defense Attorney vs Trial Lawyer

Hire a defense attorney if:
– Detained, arrested, or facing charges for a crime
– Contacted by law enforcement regarding investigation
– Named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit alleging criminal activities

Retain a trial lawyer for:
– Injuries/losses caused by another party
– Disagreements over contracts or property
– Discrimination or wrongful employment termination
– Professional malpractice
– Other civil legal disputes seeking compensation

Hiring Tips

For both defense and trial attorneys, shop around through reviews, referrals, and initial consults comparing:

– Years and types of relevant litigation experience
– Communication styles and personality matches
– Case load and bandwidth
– Fees and billing structures
– Resources they provide
– Track record of positive case outcomes

Choose lawyers who make you feel respected, understood, and give confidence they will fight tirelessly for your interests during the legal process. This connection and trust in their capabilities can make a big difference in stressful legal matters.


  • Defense lawyers defend clients facing criminal investigation or formal charges, fighting to minimize penalties under criminal statutes.
  •  Trial lawyers represent plaintiffs or defendants in civil legal disputes aiming to prove liability/damages or avoid liability.
  • Key contrasts lie in types of clients, courts, objectives, trial work, burden of proof standards, and negotiation approaches.
  • Those needing legal help choose between criminal or civil representation based on the nature of their case.
  • Vet lawyers thoroughly using initial consultations and conduct proper due diligence before retaining.
  • For the best results, Aim to partner with lawyers who earn your confidence and make you feel understood/respected.

Parul is an experienced blogger, author and lawyer who also works as an SEO content writer, copywriter and social media enthusiast. She creates compelling legal content that engages readers and improves website visibility. Linkedin

Parul is an experienced blogger, author and lawyer who also works as an SEO content writer, copywriter and social media enthusiast. She creates compelling legal content that engages readers and improves website visibility. Linkedin