Careers in criminal law
You’ve probably heard a lot about criminal law, yet may be unsure of what it really means. In essence, criminal law comprises a set of rules that establish the punishment for various types of crimes. In civil law, individuals engage in disputes over who’s right and wrong, whereas in criminal law, the prosecution argue whether governmental authorities should punish an individual for a particular act.
Criminal law plays an essential role in society, protecting the rights of individuals, their possessions, and civil liberties.
Criminal law plays an essential role in society, protecting the rights of individuals, their possessions, and civil liberties. For this reason, an expert in criminal law is usually a highly esteemed member of the community able to work within the parameters set by the justice system.
A career in criminal law brings a combination of challenge and excitement. It can be demanding and sometimes even dangerous, but there are numerous advantages to choosing this path. Among these are a broad selection of career opportunities, rewarding compensation and benefits packages, and the personal fulfillment of being directly involved in shaping a better world.
Your pathway to becoming a criminal law expert
Regardless of the area of law you wish to practice in, the path that takes you there is essentially the same. The journey usually begins with a genuine passion for investigations, coupled with a sharp sense of justice, and excellent attention to detail. Check whether you have these before deciding to enter school to earn the required degrees.
Enroll in law school to start your career in criminal law
If you plan to become a criminal law expert, attending law school is an important step. When selecting a school, several factors can influence the decision, such as location, academic curricula, type of courses provided (on-campus or hybrid), and the accreditation the institution holds.
Once enrolled in a particular criminal law program, your studies might begin with exploring the basics of criminal law, including homicide and sexual assault. You may also examine the elements needed for prosecution, learning how to detect, collect, and classify them.
Political science, psychology, criminal justice, history, philosophy, and economics are among the fields considered a plus, and may help you in your future career as a criminal lawyer.
Typically, programs include numerous courses that deal with communication and how to effectively work with people. Such skills are essential in this field. To successfully collaborate with victims, criminals, defendants, or their family members, requires excellent interpersonal abilities.
While it’s not mandatory to earn a B.A. before entering a law school, several majors in related fields may be helpful for criminal law. Political science, psychology, criminal justice, history, philosophy, and economics are among the fields considered a plus, and may help you in your future career as a criminal lawyer.
Why is the juris doctor degree essential?
Since there is no undergraduate law degree in the U.S., the most important professional law degree is the Juris Doctor (J.D.) which is earned at law school. This degree makes you eligible to enter the bar and become a fully-fledged criminal lawyer.
Established towards the end of the 19th century to improve the training of law professionals, the J.D. program has remained almost unchanged for more than 100 years. During the course, participants study substantive law and explore various professional applications.
Interestingly, many schools do not require students to write a mandatory final thesis to earn the degree. Vast written projects are sometimes needed, but these are more intermediate educational milestones rather than final dissertations.
If you study full-time, earning the J.D. usually requires 3 or more academic years. Once you complete your training, no apprenticeship is necessary before entering the bar exam.
More about the content of the J.D. degree
While some parts of the J.D. curricula can be studied online, all programs require at least some on-campus engagement. Choosing a hybrid format may provide some flexibility to juggle your studies with other competing priorities.
If you’re wondering what the curriculum might look like at various law schools, most of them have a set of mandatory courses, which include:
- civil procedure
- model penal code
- restatement of property
- constitutional law
Besides these, you will also study:
- legal research and writing
- commercial code
- restatement of contracts
After earning your J.D., it is time to consider your next career steps. You can either pass the bar exam and begin work as a criminal lawyer, or advance your studies with a post-doctoral degree in the field. You can become, for instance, a doctor of juridical science.
The bar exam in a nutshell
To be admitted into the bar, most U.S. jurisdictions require applicants to pass the bar examination. Various territories and states use agencies that report to the state supreme courts to run these exams. As you might expect, this test is extremely difficult, and takes place over 2 or 3 days.
The so-called uniform bar examination (UBE) is standardized and includes 3 different components:
multistate bar examination (MBE)
This test comprises 200 multiple choice questions related to 7 critical law areas. These include criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, federal rules of civil procedure, contracts, real property, federal rules of evidence, and torts.
multistate essay examination (MEE)
The MEE includes 6 essay questions, each with a duration of 30 minutes, which assess a candidate’s ability to analyze, understand, and communicate in writing different legal issues. Besides the topics covered in the MBE test, the MEE includes questions on commercial and business law, estates and probate law, conflicts of law, or even family law.
multistate performance test (MPT)
Situated in a fictional state (Franklin), the MPT is a closed-universe exam. After receiving a case file and a library that includes the required substantive law, the candidate must perform a typical lawyering task.
Consider a clerkship during law school
One way to broaden your professional experience during law school is to enter a judicial clerkship. Regardless of the area you plan to practice in, there are numerous advantages to completing a clerkship.
- you gain invaluable, hands-on experience that may give you a competitive advantage if you seek scholarships, fellowships, or internships after graduation.
- most judges are typically happy to act as mentors and share their wealth of know-how and judiciary expertise with you.
- it is a chance to witness a broad array of cases and explore various procedural or substantive law issues, taking your general law knowledge to the next level.
- you get to see numerous lawyers at work, some more gifted than others, and understand how they leverage various techniques and adapt their strategies on a case-by-case basis.
Take courses in criminal trial advocacy
Another effective way to gain more experience and develop your tactical and strategic planning skills is to take criminal trial advocacy courses. Such courses give you a glimpse into what’s really going on in a trial, and get you familiar with stepping into courtrooms.
Criminal trial advocacy teaches you how to represent your clients effectively.
Criminal trial advocacy teaches you how to represent your clients effectively. Plus it hones secondary skills, such as properly selecting jurors, examining witnesses, delivering closing arguments, and strategic ways to lead events towards your planned outcome.
You can explore generic persuasion principles, learn how to assure the jurors that your claims are valid, and even participate in mock trials, which represent a hugely valuable exercise in oral advocacy.
Certifications for criminal lawyers
There are no specific licensure requirements for criminal attorneys besides successfully passing the bar exam in the state where you plan to practice. Nevertheless, as a criminal lawyer, there are possibilities to earn different board certifications.
The American Bar Association (ABA) founded the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification (NBLSC) to improve the overall quality of trial advocacy. Criminal lawyers who are NBLSC-certified remain active board members for up to 5 years, and have to meet several reporting requirements annually.
Why choose an accredited law school or program?
It is crucial to choose an educational institution that’s fully accredited or that offers accredited law programs in criminal law. A degree from an accredited program proves that you have the necessary knowledge and skills to start practicing right away.
ABA approves and accredits programs and institutions that confer the J.D. degree. In most U.S. states, you need a law degree from an accredited school to enter the bar. Accredited schools also tend to lead to better employment opportunities for graduates than unaccredited ones.
What does a career in criminal law look like?
Once you have earned your J.D. and successfully passed the bar examination, you might find yourself wondering what kind of career you are most suited to. If criminal law is the field that most interests you, it can be helpful to explore several possibilities and career paths before assuming a specific role.
You might, for example, decide to become a criminal defense lawyer or a prosecuting attorney. No matter which of these you choose, you need to pass the bar exam to start work in your preferred state.
The main difference between these 2 roles is that the criminal defense lawyer serves the interests of the person charged with a particular crime, whilst the prosecuting attorney works for the federal government or the state.
Skills a successful criminal lawyer needs
Taking on the challenging career of a criminal lawyer requires numerous skills and abilities. Some of these will help you earn your law degrees, others may prove helpful once you start working.
Below are some of the vital skills and critical competencies that successful criminal lawyers bring to the table:
Legal experience and in-depth knowledge
A thorough understanding of local, state, or federal rules and regulations will help you efficiently navigate criminal justice. It is also important to know the ins and outs of evidentiary laws or court procedures.
Strong analytical skills
Creative thinking and excellent analytical skills can help you develop the right legal strategy to tackle even the most complex cases.
Investigation and research skills
When building your client’s case and putting together a strong defense, research skills and investigative abilities play a key part. Deductive skills, coupled with logic and astute reasoning can help to organize and validate your strategy.
Writing and oratory skills
To successfully convince a judge or a jury of the legitimacy of your case, you need to hone your written and oral advocacy skills. Arguing a client’s corner can be challenging, so mastering body language and learning how to become more persuasive can be important.
Outstanding interpersonal skills
Exceptional interpersonal skills and communication abilities are crucial in building a solid client-lawyer relationship which is based on understanding and trust.
Another useful skill is the ability to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information. Take, for instance, eyewitness testimonies. Widely considered to be among the most precise types of evidence, the reality is often the opposite. Memory distortions happen often, and unconscious bias plays a role. Thus, relying solely on eyewitness memories can lead to mistakes and misidentifications.
Becoming a prosecuting attorney
The district attorney, also known as prosecuting attorney, is the primary law enforcement officer and prosecutor in a particular county. They lead other state prosecutors and handle the most important local trials. To become a criminal prosecutor, you need a J.D. and to pass the bar examination in your state. Clerkships and internships can support this professional goal.
Prosecutors represent the state against the accused. They initiate and oversee legal proceedings concerning individuals charged with various crimes. Prosecutors usually play an active role in investigations, by collecting pertinent information or collaborating directly with the police. As a prosecuting attorney, you commonly deal with witnesses that were involved in a particular crime.
Prosecuting attorneys may find themselves working more than 40 hours per week. They frequently appear before the courts, which is often where they spend the majority of their time. In addition, they conduct research, and prepare or review documents and evidence.
The work of a prosecuting attorney is mentally challenging and involves long hours spent in front of computers and courts. Therefore, it is important that the financial compensation adequately reflects this. In 2020, the median salary for lawyers–including prosecuting attorneys, criminal lawyers, and other similar roles–was $126,930.
Becoming a criminal defense attorney
Once you have earned your J.D., entered the state bar, and developed a keen interest in criminal law, you may also want to consider a career as a criminal defense attorney. Besides researching facts and conducting investigations to serve your clients, these attorneys are called upon to negotiate with the prosecutors, adversaries in the courtroom. The aim is to establish favorable deals for clients, including reduced sentences, charges, or bails.
A criminal defense attorney is a law expert who can adequately evaluate their client’s chances of winning a trial, and who is able to minimize the sentence and negotiate a good plea deal. In contrast, criminal defense lawyers play an active part in defending the accused, although their role is limited to the courtroom.
Differences between public and private criminal defense attorneys
There is the option of becoming either a private or a public criminal defense attorney. Public defenders are appointed by the court to represent incriminated citizens. They typically earn less than private criminal defense attorneys and have higher work volumes. Private attorneys are hired directly by clients to represent them in the courts. Those capable of hiring an attorney usually have access to more data and defense possibilities.
There are also significant differences between state and federal defense attorneys. If someone has been arrested by a federal officer–an FBI agent, for instance–a federal defense attorney should step in for his defense. State defense attorneys defend clients accused or arrested by state or local police officers.
Other careers in criminal justice
If you study criminal law, yet, for various reasons, decide you don’t want to become a criminal lawyer, there are other career paths available to you. Depending on your skills and aspirations, some of these include:
- police officer
- private investigator
- criminal profiler
- homicide detectives
Whether you choose to become a criminal lawyer, or one of the above, the likelihood is that you will face challenging situations if you decide on a career in this area. This might cause some to reject such professions, but for the right kind of person, these are roles that can provide the perfect blend of intellectual stimulation, fulfillment, and excitement.
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL)
Founded in 1958, this is one of the most prominent American organizations that specializes in criminal defense. The association’s primary goal is to help shape a society where individuals have access to rational and fair treatment when facing the criminal justice system.
National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA)
Established in 1911, NLADA is the largest and oldest organization to advocate for equal justice in the U.S. The association provides guidance, training, information, and technical assistance for equal justice community members, with an emphasis on those who serve in public defense.
Initially known as the Southern Public Defender Training Center, the organization was founded to help provide ongoing education programs and training for law school graduates and new or senior public defenders, to ensure marginalized communities have access to equal justice.