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Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Criminal Lawyer

Criminal law is tough—but if you’re willing to rise to the challenge, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more exciting, diverse, or thought-provoking legal career.

From what criminal law entails to what you’ll study in law school to the skills you’ll need to practice in the real world, keep reading for expert insights into what it takes to succeed in this rewarding legal specialty.

What is criminal law, anyway?

Whether they’re prosecuting people who break the law, defending those who been accused of crimes, or performing related work, criminal lawyers play a critical role in our society and in the administration of justice.

As New England Law | Boston Professor Victor Hansen puts it, criminal law is basically our saying, “the conduct you engaged in was outside of what we as a society approve, and therefore you should receive our societal condemnation.” Professor Hansen, who directs the school’s Criminal Practice and Procedure certificate program, says that “societal condemnation” is really the defining factor in criminal law.

Even though a crime may be perpetrated against an individual, it’s considered an offense against the state (aka society) and prosecuted as such. “That’s what distinguishes the whole line of criminal law as different from any other kind of law,” Professor Hansen says. Criminal law then focuses on what conduct should be punished and affixing the appropriate punishment for those wrongdoings.

Underpinning a criminal lawyer’s work is the heady responsibility of cases with potentially life-changing ramifications, as they fight for justice on behalf of their client.

“[Criminal law] made me feel like a detective, and that’s why it really resonated with me,” says Teniola Adeyemi, a 2015 New England Law graduate and Assistant District Attorney in Boston. While so much legal work is black and white, she was fascinated by the gray areas in criminal law. “You’d establish a standard and then you’d have to figure out, well, what does that mean for my case? How does that help or hurt?” she says. “It’s thought-provoking.”

Professor Hansen adds that certain interests and personality traits are particularly well-suited for the law. As with any legal professional, criminal lawyers need to have solid critical thinking, interpersonal, and written and verbal communication skills. The ability to analyze complex information is also a must, as is the ability to deal with potentially disturbing situations, such as discussing or viewing evidence related to a violent crime. Last but certainly not least, underpinning a criminal lawyer’s work is the heady responsibility of cases with potentially life-changing ramifications, as they fight for justice on behalf of their client.

Challenging? Yes. But this can all add up to an incredibly rewarding career.

Upon entering the workforce, criminal lawyers enjoy many diverse job options. Some focus on defense, working as private attorneys or public defenders. Others serve as prosecutors at the local, state, or federal level. Later in their careers, these lawyers might become judges or enter the political arena, effecting change at the highest levels.

How do you become a criminal lawyer?

Whether you hope to become a criminal lawyer or enter another practice area, your career path will begin to take shape once you enter law school. You’ll complete a combination of required courses and electives, many of which will expose you to the practice and particulars of criminal law. It all starts with a first-year course covering the foundations of criminal law (required by virtually all accredited law schools).

In the criminal law course he teaches first-year students, Professor Hansen focuses primarily on two key crimes: murder/homicide (where students look at relevant statutes, different degrees of murder, and the elements of proof needed to prove the guilt) and sexual assault (where students learn how that crime and the law itself have evolved). The class also covers potential defenses to those crimes as well as mitigating factors.

Though such horrific crimes might spring to mind when you think of “criminal law,” there’s more to the specialty than the cases ripped right out of a Law & Order screenplay. In fact, there’s a surprising universality to criminal law. “It really touches on a lot of the different areas that any lawyer would be interested in,” Professor Hansen says. “Plus there’s the added component of working with people, whether it’s victims, defendants, family members, or organizations within governmental institutions.”

Then, as an upper-level law student, you might take such classes as Juvenile Law, Mental Health Law, Prosecutorial Ethics, Trial Practice, and White Collar Crime. You’ll also have opportunities to get hands-on experience in criminal law through law school clinics, internships, moot court/mock trial, and more.

At the end of all that course work, the big prize is your Juris Doctor (JD). After law school, some students go on to pursue advanced degrees such as the Master of Laws (LLM) or the Doctor of Science of Law (JSD or SJD), but those individuals are typically planning to conduct scholarly research or teach law. For most students hoping to pursue criminal law, the JD is what they need to practice—after passing the bar exam, of course.

Where can you learn more about studying criminal law?

“Most students have been exposed to some aspects of criminal law through books, television, and movies,” Professor Hansen says. “While that can be helpful to some degree, it can also be somewhat misleading.” Naturally, the examples found in entertainment are designed to be just that: entertaining. The realities are often more subtle.

To gain a better understanding of the real-world practice of criminal law, students should take advantage of internships, summer programs, and experiential course work in law school. They might also consider participating in professional organizations that support students as well as working professionals. Just one example is the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association. It provides students the opportunity to network with their peers as well as professionals, plus access to resources such as videos and journals.

Other resources for students curious about criminal law include the National Center for Law Placement, which offers helpful information like average salaries in the private and public sectors, employment trends, and more. A section targeted to law students and graduates provides plenty of career advice. Another organization, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers serves private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors, and judges.

Students are also strongly encouraged to network and seek out mentoring relationships, which might involve attending professional events on campus, reaching out to law school alumni, and simply tapping into personal connections. For example, sitting down for an “informational interview” with a family friend who happens to be a criminal lawyer can be immensely helpful in clarifying your career choices!

All this being said, even if you’re strongly considering criminal law, it’s best to keep your mind and options open in law school, Professor Hansen says. “Keep your eyes open, particularly entering into your first year,” he says. “Don’t shut any doors.”

Students frequently discover previously untapped interests through their law school courses and experiential learning opportunities, Professor Hansen says. He notes that the first-year criminal law class consistently inspires students to pursue this path. At the same time, students who start law school focused on a particular area often end up changing their plans. In any case, it’s important to be realistic and gain as much experience as you can in the legal areas that interest you so you can make informed decisions.

From the LSAT to the bar exam, from that first criminal law class to the day you get your diploma, becoming a criminal lawyer takes a great deal of time and effort. But wherever they end up, criminal lawyers invariably have a significant impact on the clients—and society—they serve.

Learn more about studying criminal law.