The life of a criminal law attorney is often depicted in television shows and movies as a glamorous game of wits in which everyone wears designer suits, paperwork is almost nonexistent, courtrooms come equipped with flat screen TVs and other high-tech devices, and every case goes to trial. Although the reality is not nearly so flashy, criminal law is an exciting area of practice, since criminal cases often have high stakes and frequently involve intriguing factual situations. "Not everyone has a job where you turn on the news and a crime is reported, and maybe two days later, that case is on your desk," notes District Attorney Venus Johnson '05. "I like that part because I actually feel like I'm having an impact and I'm involved in my community directly."
Criminal law attorneys fall into two main categories: prosecutors and defense attorneys. Every jurisdiction has a set of laws that characterize certain conduct as criminal and forbid that conduct under penalty of fines or imprisonment. Crimes are considered an offense against the people of the state, not just the victim. Thus, the government, rather than the victim of the conduct, is charged with enforcing these laws. Prosecutors bring criminal charges against suspects on behalf of the government, while defense attorneys represent the accused.
When a crime occurs, prosecutors are entrusted with deciding whether to bring criminal charges against the person suspected of committing the crime. To make an informed decision, prosecutors often have to interview witnesses and victims, conduct legal research, and evaluate the available evidence. After they decide to file charges against a suspect, they must decide what charges to bring and eventually must resolve the case through settlement or trial. Prosecutors usually work for the office of a county district attorney, state attorney general, or federal U.S. attorney; however, other branches of government also employ attorneys to prosecute violations of criminal laws. It is very important for prosecutors to follow certain procedures to ensure the fair and efficient administration of the jurisdiction's criminal code and to cultivate trust in the system among members of the public.
While prosecutors play an important role in the criminal justice system, defense attorneys serve an equally essential purpose. Their clients are people who have been accused of crimes. Once criminal proceedings have been initiated against a person, that person has a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney. If the court determines that a defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint an attorney from the office of the public defender to provide counsel throughout the criminal proceedings. Defense attorneys — whether affiliated with a private law firm or the office of a public defender — negotiate with prosecutors in the hopes of having the charges against their clients reduced or dismissed. They also formulate defense strategies, advise their clients on how to plead (although what plea to enter is ultimately the clients' decision), and appear in court on behalf of their clients. Some private defense attorneys represent exclusively criminal defendants, while others represent defendants in both criminal and civil cases. Finding a job in criminal law can be difficult, especially since government positions often require applicants to have passed the bar exam before they apply; however, practical experience, a demonstrated commitment to the practice of criminal law, the support of a mentor, and patience all improve the chances of finding a rewarding career in this area of law.
McGeorge alumni who practice criminal law recommend that students take advantage of McGeorge's strong program in trial advocacy. Classes in evidence, procedure, negotiation, research, and writing are helpful as well, along with participation in McGeorge's moot court, mock trial, and clinical programs. For students who want to work on cases involving white collar crime — that is, crime involving financial, economic, or corporate wrongdoing — courses on business and tax law are useful.
Breadth and Depth
McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.
Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.
Regardless of whether they represent the prosecution or the defense, criminal law attorneys can expect to spend a good amount of their time preparing their cases for trial. This involves gathering, organizing, and analyzing information; developing a trial strategy; selecting and preparing witnesses; and drafting motions and petitions. Although the majority of criminal cases end in plea bargains without ever going to trial, settlement is often the result of thorough trial preparation on the part of one or both parties.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike note that their schedules are often hectic and unpredictable, but many of them enjoy this aspect of their practice because it provides constant intellectual stimulation. For the same reason, many criminal law attorneys find jury trials to be the most exciting part of their work. Prosecutors gain additional satisfaction from upholding the law and vindicating victims, while public defenders often enjoy working with people and having the opportunity to counsel those who are struggling with problems aside from their criminal cases, such as alcohol or drug addiction. Private defense attorneys and public defenders benefit from the feeling that they protect people from government overreaching and help their clients move past the accusations made against them. "Criminal law to me is fighting for something bigger than you," says defense attorney Joseph Low '97. "You're fighting for freedom."
Skills often found in criminal law attorneys:
Criminal law attorneys maintain that an internship with the office of a district attorney, U.S. attorney, or public defender is one of the best ways to prepare for a career in criminal law. Paid positions at these offices are often very competitive due to budget constraints, so it is highly desirable for job applicants to have a demonstrated interest in criminal law, as well as practical experience. Law student interns at these offices are often given larger amounts of responsibility than those working at private law firms, making them more practice ready when the time comes for them to apply for permanent positions.
Outside the classroom, it is important for students to find a mentor to offer them guidance during law school and beyond. Public defender Rachel Miller '02 explains. "If you have an idea of what you want to do, your best option is to get out there, find an attorney who does that, and spend some time seeing what their days are like."
Participating in any of the below-listed activities will not only offer you valuable insight into the legal system and the practice of criminal law, but will put you at a competitive advantage in your post-graduate job search.
Criminal law attorneys might practice at any level of government—in addition to the federal government, each state and county in the United States has a criminal justice system that requires attorneys who practice criminal law, including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and private defense attorneys.
Public defenders might work in the Office of the Federal Defender, which represents clients who are financially unable to retain counsel in federal criminal and related proceedings, the Office of the State Public Defender, which, depending on the state, might only focus on appellate representation or might provide broader criminal defense services to indigent clients, or for city or county public defender offices. Private criminal defense attorneys generally work in small law firms, but a minority work in large firms or as solo practitioners. Large firms generally focus on defense for clients accused of white collar crimes or for long-standing clients who find themselves in trouble with the law. They may also take other types of criminal cases on a pro bono basis.
Prosecutors might work in a U.S. Attorney's Office (part of the U.S. Department of Justice) which is charged with enforcing federal law in the district. The U.S. Attorneys serve under the direction of the U.S. Attorney General and undertake most of the litigation in which the United States is a party. Prosecutors also might work for the state: the State Attorney General's primary responsibility is to ensure that the laws of the state are "uniformly and adequately enforced." The Attorney General also serves as chief counsel in state litigation. In California, the Attorney General heads the California Department of Justice and oversees law enforcement agencies as well. The District Attorney is the county official who represents the state in criminal prosecutions within his or her district. The District Attorney employs a number of Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs).
The Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) employs attorneys to serve as legal advisors to the various branches of the U.S. armed forces. Among other duties, JAG officers serve as prosecutors in military trials conducted by courts-martial. Many other federal agencies, like the Drug Enforcement Administration and Internal Revenue Service, also employ attorneys to help enforce federal law. Officers in the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) provide defense counsel for service members who are tried for criminal violations under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. JAG advocates work at Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force bases worldwide, while other attorneys participate in international criminal cases (for example, in front of the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court).
Judges and law clerks who deal with criminal law matters work at courthouses at the federal, state, or local level. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also employ lawyers as staff attorneys, special agents, and criminal investigators. [For more information on legal careers with these agencies, attend the FBI and CIA Information Session presented at McGeorge (usually during the fall semester). Some international organizations, including the International Criminal Tribunal and International Criminal Court, employ attorneys.
Prosecutors represent "the people." That is, they serve their communities by ensuring that laws are enforced and justice is served. Many prosecutors see the victims of crimes as their "clients," even though this is not technically the case. Public defenders represent defendants who cannot afford a private defense attorney, as determined by the court. Private defense attorneys represent people who are accused of crimes and who can afford to pay legal fees or have secured pro bono representation.