Attorney, criminal defense attorney and defense attorney – is there a difference?

In Germany, around 0.2 percent of the population is licensed to practice law. Despite strict regulations, lawyers and defense attorneys are not in short supply in the Federal Republic of Germany. According to current information from the German Federal Bar Association, the number of lawyers admitted to the bar has been rising steadily since 1960. Round 165.000 lawyers were registered in Germany in 2021. Now subdivide into different professional groups, such as criminal defense lawyers and defense attorneys. However, the difference between them is hard to determine for laypersons.

Attorney, criminal defense attorney and defense attorney - is there a difference?

Lawyer, criminal defense attorney or defense counsel?

A criminal defense lawyer is usually a licensed attorney who focuses on criminal law. For this reason, many criminal defense lawyers in Germany are also lawyers for criminal law. The primary task of a criminal defense lawyer is to defend his clients in the best possible way in criminal proceedings. Hence the term criminal defense lawyer.

This becomes necessary if the German legal authorities accuse you of having committed a crime or a felony. Ideally, your counsel is a criminal law specialist who is located nearby. So if you live in Berlin, it makes sense to hire a lawyer for criminal law from Berlin.

Not every lawyer is a criminal defense lawyer

Important: A lawyer is not automatically a criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer's expertise enables him to advise his clients in all possible areas of law. In addition, the representation can be both judicial and extrajudicial.

A lawyer can therefore defend his clients in court in a criminal case. However, this is subject to one condition: First and second state examinations must be completed with a sufficient grade. A criminal defense attorney focuses primarily on criminal cases, although some criminal defense attorneys also handle misdemeanor cases.

Overview of the tasks of a lawyer, defense counsel and criminal defense lawyer

The primary task of a criminal defense lawyer is to provide detailed advice to the accused of a criminal offense and to represent him legally throughout the criminal proceedings. According to § 1 BRAO, a defense attorney is an independent organ of the administration of justice.

Two other independent organs of the administration of justice are the court and the public prosecutor's office. In concrete terms, this means that he is not bound by the directives of the court or the public prosecutor's office. The defense attorney must exclusively represent the interests of his client. So criminal defense lawyers and attorneys are first and foremost advocates. They have the duty to inform the accused in the best legal way, so that he is able to determine his interests autonomously.

How to recognize a good criminal defense lawyer?

A good criminal defense lawyer should of course be well versed in German criminal law and criminal procedure law. He should also have at least ten years of professional experience and have been active in different courts in the context of different criminal proceedings.

Furthermore, a good defense lawyer should not patronize his client and he should not let his client make him his personal tool. The high art of criminal defense is primarily to represent the interests of a client well and professionally.


The differences between a lawyer, a criminal defense attorney and a defense counsel are difficult to see for laypersons. However, if you take a closer look at the subject matter, you can get a good overview of the differences between these professions.

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