This article examines how fee reductions influence criminal defence lawyers’ work. Data from 29 qualitative interviews with English defence solicitors and barristers are analysed in order to understand the way in which cuts to fees paid by government for criminal legal aid work can operate to influence criminal defence lawyers’ working practices. I use game theory and Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and field to build a theoretical construct illustrating the invidious position current financial conditions place criminal legal aid lawyers in. I argue that these conditions reward and encourage perceived poor practices and values to thrive at the expense of other concerns – such as the conviction of the guilty, acquittal of the innocent, fair treatment of both victims and defendants, and value for the taxpayer. Ultimately, I argue that criminal legal aid lawyers are set up to fail by the current financial conditions within which they must work.