what is a criminal lawyer


What happens to someone accused of a crime they didn’t commit? Does an arrest equate to guilt? How is innocence – or guilt – proven to judges and juries? What happens after a wrongful conviction?

If these questions plague your mind, you may want to pursue becoming a criminal defense attorney.


What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do?

Criminal defense lawyers dedicate their careers to justice. They defend individuals and organizations fighting criminal charges.

From client strategy sessions to courtrooms, these attorneys spend their days navigating the complex criminal justice system. Criminal attorneys also work to ensure their clients receive fair treatment throughout the legal process.

There are two kinds of criminal lawyers: public defenders and private defense attorneys. Public defenders are employed by the state. A public defender serves as defense counsel and represent defendants who can’t afford legal fees for their own attorney and have criminal charges against them.

Private attorneys are employed by private law firms. Defendants who hire private law firms pay for their own legal services.


Evaluating Evidence: The Key to a Solid Defense Strategy

A criminal lawyer must conduct thorough research to provide good legal assistance properly build a client’s case. This process typically starts by evaluating any evidence presented by the prosecution.

Normally, that includes police reports, witness statements, and forensic data. The goal is to find potential flaws or inconsistencies in the case against the defendant.

Pertinent statutes, case law, probable cause, and other legal precedents are reviewed as well. When it comes to evaluating evidence, criminal defense attorneys must be thorough.

Conducting research can be tedious, requiring attention to detail and a deep understanding of the law’s application to each specific case. Criminal attorneys work to identify procedural errors and violations of their clients' rights; both are powerful components of a defense strategy.


Representing Clients During Trial Proceedings

The defense attorney typically represents a criminal defendant during trial proceedings. At the start of the criminal trial, the lawyer delivers an opening statement to introduce the defendant’s case. As the trial proceeds, the lawyer will present evidence, question experts, cross-examine witnesses, and deliver closing remarks to the judge and/or jury.

A criminal defense lawyer must be able to effectively communicate complex legal concepts. This ability to communicate is essential, not only for working with criminal defendants, but also for presenting a compelling case in the courtroom.

Defense lawyers must be able to think on their feet to provide a good legal defense for their clients. Even the best legal strategy may be met with unexpected developments. Attorneys must know how to respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances, so that they can best serve their clients.


Identifying and Questioning Experts to Build a Strong Case

Criminal lawyers may collaborate with other professionals, such as private investigators or expert witnesses, to gather additional proof that may help strengthen a criminal case. Leveraging the expertise of others is key when defending a client and proving a client's innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Using experts can be powerful to strengthen the defense, provided the expert’s evidence is derived from relevant scientific knowledge. The defense attorney needs to ask foundational questions to establish the expert subject will be helpful to the jury and that the expert witness possesses credentials to qualify as an expert. Then, the questions posed to the expert must be designed to reveal the flaws in the prosecutor’s case, based on the expert’s knowledge applied to the case. An example is a psychologist expert witness helping a jury understand if a defendant could have acted with intent."
Dr. Linda Ashar
Legal Studies faculty member

How does a criminal defense attorney help a client who’s culpable? When a “not guilty” verdict is out of the question, criminal defense lawyers may instead focus their efforts on winning a plea bargain.

Plea bargains involve compromising with the prosecution to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. For example, a defendant may plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges or penalties.


Appearing in Court Is Only Part of an Attorney’s Work

The courtroom may be where the action happens in a criminal case, but criminal lawyers handle most of their work behind the scenes.

Outside of court, attorneys work closely with clients. They’ll translate complex legal jargon into simple terms that clients can understand. In addition, criminal attorneys help defendants understand how the legal process unfolds and what they can expect during a trial.

Criminal defense attorneys work with defendants to understand the implications of charges and how each potential verdict may influence a sentence. Through careful assessment of the facts and evidence, criminal lawyers help clients navigate the intricacies of criminal law, which empowers clients to make informed decisions before and during a trial.


How to Become a Criminal Lawyer

The process to become a practicing attorney varies from state to state. Still, it’s worth noting that most states require a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree to practice law.

This advanced degree is awarded by a law school. Typically, aspiring lawyers must also pass their state’s bar exam after graduating from law school. Whether passing the bar is required, however, and when it can be taken will depend on the unique requirements of a state.

Nevertheless, the journey to law school and becoming a criminal defense lawyer begins with first earning a bachelor’s degree. Many prospective law students begin their educational path with a bachelor's degree in a related field.

Some examples of relevant undergraduate majors include political science, philosophy, and English. Each of these degree programs help equip learners with foundational knowledge, interpersonal skills, and research skills that may be further developed during their post-graduate studies.

After completing a bachelor’s degree, students may decide to enter law school and take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

Most law school programs may be completed within three years, and the curriculum usually covers a wide range of topics such as constitutional law, criminal procedure, and legal writing. Law school students often analyze landmark court cases while learning how to interpret and apply the law to real-world scenarios.

Aside from their coursework, law students complete internships or work for legal clinics to gain practical experience. These hands-on learning opportunities enable students to learn from experienced attorneys and offer insights into the daily workings of the criminal justice system. Students may assist with case research, draft legal documents, or observe courtroom proceedings in preparation to seek opportunities in criminal law.

Ultimately, completing the necessary education to become a criminal defense attorney takes students an average of seven years. However, the education doesn’t stop there; many criminal defense lawyers continue their education through ongoing professional development. They attend seminars, conferences, and workshops to stay abreast of changes in the law and resulting implications for legal practices.


What Skills Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Need?

A criminal defense lawyer should possess a variety of hard and soft skills. For instance, a criminal attorney must effectively convey arguments to judges, juries, and other legal professionals. Lawyers must have the ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and analyze complicated legal issues while working under immense pressure.

Criminal lawyers are advocates for a criminal defendant's rights. They apply strong problem-solving skills to form creative solutions for each client’s unique needs. Public speaking and presentation skills are also crucial, especially during the jury selection process and throughout a trial.

Furthermore, defense attorneys must be detail-oriented. Being able to spot inconsistencies and weaknesses in the opposing party's arguments could mean the difference between a “guilty” and “not guilty” verdict.

"Especially for the defense attorney, lawyering is combative. The aspiring defense lawyer must possess good communication skills, coupled with a willingness to argue persuasively for a client’s interest with a cool head, a thick skin, and a solid grasp of the relevant law and facts. To have that grasp means having the analytical skills to assess strengths and weaknesses in one’s own case as well as the opponent’s and knowing how to efficiently research the best strategy to bring to the case. It also means being compassionate and understanding of how human sympathies play into the resolution of cases, whether reached by agreement or trial."
Dr. Linda Ashar
Legal Studies faculty member


Specializations within Criminal Law

In criminal law, there are various specializations that lawyers can pursue to further refine their expertise. These specializations allow criminal attorneys to focus on specific types of cases or legal issues, enabling them to become more effective advocates.

One specialization within criminal law is white-collar crime. This area involves representing clients who are accused of non-violent crimes typically committed in a business or professional setting. Some examples of white-collar crime include fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, and money laundering.

Lawyers specializing in white-collar crime must have a strong understanding of financial regulations, corporate law, and complex financial transactions. They often work closely with forensic accountants and investigators to build a strong defense for their clients.

Another specialization is drug crimes. Lawyers specializing in this area of the law handle cases involving drug possession, trafficking, manufacturing, and distribution.

These lawyers are well-versed in drug laws, search and seizure procedures, and the constitutional rights of their clients. They may also have knowledge of addiction treatment programs and alternative sentencing options for individuals who struggle with substance abuse.

Cybercrime is a rapidly growing specialization within criminal law. With the popularity of technology and the internet, crimes such as hacking, identity theft, and online fraud have become more prevalent.

Lawyers specializing in cybercrime must have a deep understanding of computer systems, digital evidence, and internet laws. They work closely with forensic experts and technology specialists to gather facts and build a strong case.

Domestic violence is another specialization within criminal law that focuses on cases involving violence or abuse within intimate relationships. An attorney specializing in this area provides legal representation to victims or to individuals facing criminal charges for acts of domestic violence.

This type of defense lawyer may be knowledgeable about restraining orders, protective orders, and the dynamics of abusive relationships. These lawyers often work closely with social workers and counselors to ensure the safety and well-being of their clients.

Each specialization within criminal law presents its own unique challenges and requires specialized knowledge. By honing their skills in a specific area, lawyers can become invaluable resources for clients facing charges related to certain crimes.


Navigating the Challenges of a Career in Criminal Law

While a career in criminal law offers numerous opportunities for professional growth and personal fulfillment, it is not without its challenges. Aspiring criminal lawyers must be prepared to face the demanding nature of the work, the emotional toll of dealing with difficult cases, and the long hours spent preparing for trials.

The satisfaction of a career in criminal law can be immeasurable. For lawyers, knowing that their work plays a crucial role in upholding justice, protects individual rights and freedoms, and ensures a fair and equitable legal system can provide a sense of fulfillment few other professions offer. Criminal lawyers also make a positive impact on the lives of their clients, helping them navigate the complexities of the legal process and fighting for a just outcome.


The Emotional Challenges That Criminal Lawyers Face Can Be Intense

One of the challenges that criminal lawyers face is the pressure to perform under intense scrutiny. Every decision they make, every argument they present, and every piece of evidence they gather can have a significant impact on the outcome of a case.

The weight of this responsibility can be overwhelming at times. The stakes are often high, and the consequences of failure can be devastating.

Criminal lawyers often find themselves dealing with emotionally charged situations. They may have to represent clients who are accused of heinous crimes, and it can be emotionally draining to listen to their stories and witness their pain. Balancing empathy and objectivity is a delicate task that requires a strong sense of professionalism and emotional resilience.

In addition to the emotional toll, the long hours spent preparing for trials can take a toll on a criminal lawyer's personal life. They may have to sacrifice time with family and friends, miss important events, and work weekends and holidays to meet deadlines. The dedication and commitment required to excel in this field can sometimes lead to a work-life imbalance, which is a challenge that many criminal lawyers must learn to navigate.


Despite These Challenges, Criminal Law Offers Numerous Rewards

Criminal lawyers often have the chance to work on high-profile cases that attract media attention. This exposure can provide them with valuable professional opportunities, such as speaking engagements, book deals, and invitations to join prestigious legal organizations. The publicity can also enhance their reputation and credibility within the legal community, opening doors to new and exciting opportunities.

Criminal lawyers have the privilege of working with a diverse range of clients, each with their own unique stories and circumstances. They can build meaningful relationships with their clients, gaining their trust and guiding them through the legal process. This aspect of the job can be incredibly rewarding, because criminal lawyers witness firsthand the positive impact they can have on someone's life.


Are You an Aspiring Criminal Lawyer?

Ultimately, becoming a criminal lawyer is much more than choosing a profession. Ultimately, it’s about recognizing a calling to ensure that justice is properly served.

Pursuing an associate degree in legal studies, a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, or a master’s degree in legal studies at American Public University is a practical first step in acquiring a legal education. American Public University’s legal studies courses delves deep into the U.S. court system, different types of law, and the improvement of access to justice.

Note: Additional education, experience, and professional licensure may be needed to obtain employment in this field, beyond what is provided by legal studies programs at the University.

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