When you see a lawyer in movies or TV shows, it is most likely you are watching a criminal lawyer. Criminal law is the stuff of drama, dealing with serious crimes and defendants facing the potential for prison or even the death penalty. It is no wonder the entertainment industry focuses on criminal law—it is compelling and high-stakes. For aspiring attorneys, many will wonder how to become a criminal lawyer.
Here we provide an overview of how to embark on a career in criminal law. First we discuss what a criminal lawyer is and what they generally do as part of their job. Then we will discuss the path to becoming a criminal lawyer and what you can reasonably expect from a career in this field.
What is a criminal lawyer?
A criminal lawyer, also known as a criminal attorney, is a lawyer who specializes in the defense of individuals (or, in some instances, companies) who have been charged with criminal activity.
Criminal law is meant to govern conduct that has been deemed so harmful and dangerous to individuals or society at large that the government will seek penalties for the conduct, which can include imprisonment or even execution. This differentiates criminal law from civil litigation, which governs legal actions between private individuals or entities.
There are two broad groupings of criminal lawyers:
- Government prosecutors, who prosecute those accused of crimes
- Criminal defense attorneys, who defend the people accused.
Defense attorneys can be either public defenders—who are appointed by the government to represent defendants—or private defense attorneys who are retained directly by defendants. Public defenders often work for the government, but they can also be appointed from “outside panels” of private defense attorneys willing to take on this work.
What do criminal lawyers do?
Criminal lawyers have to engage in much of the work common for attorneys, such as factual investigation and legal research. This often includes interviewing witnesses, inspecting the crime scene, and developing a case strategy.
Criminal law tends to be court-intensive, with numerous court appearances and cases that often go to trial. Depending on the type of case, criminal law can also include extensive document review.
There are many different types of crimes, which means there are a wide array of cases a criminal lawyer can handle:
- Physical crimes, which are crimes that cause physical or mental harm to others, such as assault.
- Property-related, such as burglary, larceny, and arson.
- Drug-related crimes and traffic crimes are two examples of statutory offenses that may not necessarily result in direct harm to a person or property but are nonetheless considered harmful to society.
- White-collar crimes, involving financial dealings, such as embezzlement, fraud, or tax evasion.
A criminal attorney tends to have a busy schedule with numerous court dates and deadlines. This can be especially difficult when an attorney or firm is handling different types of cases. The information needed and case strategies required will vary widely between cases for driving while intoxicated or grand theft auto, for instance. In addition, a criminal lawyer must be comfortable with public speaking and oral communication.
How do you become a criminal lawyer?
While the endpoint can be rewarding, the path to becoming a criminal lawyer is lengthy and challenging. The educational requirements are extensive, but law school is only part of the equation, as detailed below.
Earn your bachelor’s degree
Before attending law school, you need to earn your bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. While specific majors or studies are not required for law school, you may still wish to seek out courses that provide some exposure to criminal law. This might entail pursuing a degree in criminal justice or individual courses in criminology or law enforcement administration.
Take the LSAT
The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is a standardized test required for admission to law school. The test includes multiple-choice questions and a writing sample, and it seeks to evaluate reading, verbal, and reasoning skills. The test is offered four times a year, in June, September, December, and February. You will need to register for your testing session beforehand.
You will need a high enough LSAT score to be admitted to an accredited law school, and a higher score will help with admission to more reputable schools. This means you should take the test seriously and study for it diligently, perhaps considering an LSAT preparation course.
If your score is low and you believe you can improve the second time, you may wish to retake the test. Some schools may accept the higher score, while others may average your scores.
Apply to law school
When choosing where to apply, consider your grades and LSAT score to gauge where you are likely to gain admission.
You should also think about where you want to practice, since it is generally easier to find employment in the same geographic area as your school.
Finally, compare the costs of different schools, including the potential for grants, scholarships, or other financial aid.
To submit the actual applications, you should register with the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) used by all law schools. Send your transcripts and letters of recommendation to CAS, which will forward them to the schools of your choice. You will also need to submit a personal statement, usually no more than 500 words long. If the school does not require a specific topic for the statement, feel free to write about your interest in criminal law.
Earn your law degree
Law school generally requires 90 course credits over a three-year span. The first-year curriculum is relatively fixed from school to school, consisting of courses in broad legal areas such as torts, contracts, and civil procedure. Fortunately, criminal law is also a standard first-year course, so you will gain early exposure to your preferred field.
You can take elective classes beginning in the second year, allowing you to take criminal law classes such as criminal procedure. Also seek out any courses or internships that will allow you to practice your trial advocacy.
Obtain your license to practice law
In your third year of law school, you will need to take and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), which tests your knowledge of legal ethics.
After graduation, you will need to take and pass the bar exam for your jurisdiction. Bar examinations are generally multi-day tests that include multiple-choice and essay components. These examinations tend to be difficult, so you are well-advised to take a preparation course if possible.
Once you have passed the exam, you can apply for admission to the bar and attend a swearing-in ceremony to become an officially licensed attorney.
Gain work experience
An aspiring criminal lawyer can start gaining work experience in law school through internships, clinics, and summer associate positions. Internships with judges, district attorneys, or public defenders could provide excellent opportunities. Many law school clinics deal with criminal law and are very popular with students. A summer spent serving as a clerk or summer associate for a criminal defense firm could give you hands-on experience in the private sector that is hard to replicate elsewhere.
If you take the private sector route, pay special attention to the systems and processes used at the firm, including the use of any technology. Criminal lawyers need to be organized, efficient, and unflappable, as they are dealing with clients coming to them at low points in their lives.
The right legal software, such as Clio Manage, helps you keep track of files, court dates, and administrative tasks, so you can focus your time and energy on giving the best possible representation to your clients.
In addition, you will need to be able to bring in clients effectively to build your business, especially with criminal defense clients who typically need help quickly. Onboard them efficiently from anywhere with cloud-based software designed to smooth the intake process, like Clio Grow.
Curious about other practices areas? Check out our useful resource to learn what it takes to become a lawyer in other practices areas, such as:
- How to become an immigration lawyer
- How to become a patent lawyer
- How to become a family lawyer
Salary and job outlook
Once you have accomplished your goal of becoming a criminal lawyer, your job outlook will likely be excellent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for lawyers in 2021 was $148,030. There are also projected to be over 40,000 job openings for attorneys on an annual basis through 2026—the highest amount for any profession requiring a graduate degree.
With these bright job prospects, be sure to develop the skills and experience necessary to set yourself up for a successful career in criminal law. This includes learning about the technology you will need to be productive in the digital age.
Final notes on how to become a criminal lawyer
The work of a criminal attorney can be dramatic, exciting, and very rewarding. By knowing the path to becoming one, you can map out some aspects of your life to reach this goal. While the educational component is obviously important, also be sure to gain the experience you need to enter the workforce competitively—including your tech knowledge. To get a head start on the technology required to succeed in your career, be sure to check out Clio’s Academic Access Program.