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.
- Many public defender and district attorney offices post job and internship opportunities on their websites, so look at the page for any office in which you may want to work. Additionally, several criminal law employers conduct on-campus interviews (OCI) each year at McGeorge.
- American Bar Association Section of Criminal Justice
- State Bar of California Section of Criminal Law
- American Criminal Law Review
- California District Attorneys Association
- California Public Defenders Association
- National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers