This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Criminal Law, for both prosecution and public defense. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.
Some of this content is courtesy of both the Public Interest Law Center at New York University School of Law, and of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at the Harvard Law School.
What is Criminal Law?
Careers in criminal law typically focus on either the prosecution or the defense of individuals charged with crimes. Both involve regular appearances in court, a fast-paced environment, and working with a diverse section of the community. However, the motivating factors for pursuing a career on one side versus the other can be very different. Furthermore, the challenges that attorneys face in these roles are different. This career guide will help you explore both sides.
Prosecution is an essential part of upholding the law and prosecutors have a daily role in making their community safe and ensuring that crime is punished appropriately. They seek applicants who have a clear sense of fairness, which is critical to maintaining the credibility of the criminal justice system. As such, prosecutors’ offices seek law students and attorneys who are comfortable advocating for punishment for criminal defendants.
Prosecutors spend the majority of their days in court, meeting with police officers and witnesses, and investigating and researching cases. They need to have strong interpersonal skills, as they interact daily with a wide range of people in both the legal community and the general public. Words that often describe the ideal prosecutor are: commitment to justice, sound judgment, integrity, tenacity, honesty, strong ethics, and diligence.
In the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Constitution guaranteed counsel to all criminal defendants, even those who could not afford an attorney. Since the majority of criminal defendants today fall below the federal income guidelines, public defenders play a vital role in upholding the constitutional rights of people throughout the country.
Public defenders spend the majority of their days in court, meeting with clients, and investigating and researching cases. They interact daily with a wide range of people including judges and prosecutors, indigent clients and their families, witnesses, and police officers. Public defenders need to have strong interpersonal skills, need to be resilient with opposing lawyers and the public, while also being compassionate to clients. Words that often describe the ideal public defender are: courageous, tenacious, persuasive, tough, willing to be unpopular, having the ability to recognize shades of grey, and the ability empathize and communicate with a broad range of people.
Where can I practice Criminal Law?
Prosecutors enforce the laws of their jurisdiction, which can be local, state, or federal. Each state is organized differently so it is important to learn about the jurisdictions in which you are interested. Many cities rely on county prosecutors, often referred to as county, district, or state attorneys’ offices, and the head of the office is commonly an elected official.
All cities handle a wide range of offenses from minor traffic infractions to the most serious crimes. In larger offices, attorneys are often placed on a team that handles specific types of cases, such as drug crimes, violent crimes, financial crimes, domestic relations crimes, and juvenile offenders.
For criminal matters of either statewide significance, appellate, or post-conviction matters, the cases might involve the state attorney general, who often has a criminal division within their office.
Federal criminal matters are typically handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). USAOs typically do not hire new attorneys, though DOJ does have an Honors Program for new attorneys which is highly valued by USAOs. If you aspire to be a federal prosecutor, you can also gain the requisite experience working as a state prosecutor, working at a large firm as a civil litigator, or working in a white collar defense practice.
Public defenders provide counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases on the local, state, and federal levels. Some states have a statewide public defender system and others are organized on a local basis. Public defender offices, particularly in urban areas and other busy jurisdictions, may have specialized departments that focus on juvenile, capital, or appellate litigation. Small jurisdictions might not have a public defender office at all, but rather may rely entirely on private attorneys to take cases as court-appointed counsel.
Federal public defenders represent indigent defendants in federal court. While many federal defender offices hire interns, most do not hire new law school graduates. One notable exception is the Federal Defenders of San Diego.
Public defender offices have a variety of philosophies that govern how they interact with clients and how they manage cases. According to legal ethics rules, there are some decisions in a case that rest solely with the client, such as the decision to plead guilty or not guilty. However, other decisions, such as how much to involve the client in developing a theory of the case, rest with the lawyer. Offices have varying philosophies of representation as to the extent to which the office encourages lawyers to consult with and defer to the client’s wishes on those discretionary issues. It is wise to try to learn the philosophy of offices which you are interested in.
While most public defender offices focus solely on criminal defense, some seek a broader mandate of “holistic” representation. In some of the larger cities, like New York City, public defenders may work on teams with civil attorneys and social workers to represent clients with overlapping issues like immigration, employment, family, or mental health. At the core of “holistic advocacy” is the understanding that clients come into the criminal justice system with a host of social, economic, political, and legal problems – all rooted in poverty. Such offices offer a team approach to representation and often collaborate with community partners to address broader systemic problems that lead to the arrest and over-incarceration of clients.
Which personality traits make you well-suited for this?
Prosecutor’s offices seek law students and attorneys who have a combination of integrity, sound judgment, and commitment to the pursuit of justice, particularly when faced with difficult decisions. Young prosecutors receive immediate responsibility and have varying levels of discretion over cases. In some offices, individual prosecutors have nearly complete discretion over their cases including which cases to take to trial, which cases to plead, and which terms to include in a plea agreement. In other jurisdictions, there is much more supervision and less individual discretion, but even so, daily decisions will require quick judgment, such as: Is this witness telling the truth? Do the officers need to do more investigation? Is this a case of mistaken identity? Who should I strike from the jury pool? New attorneys seeking immediate responsibility will find ample opportunity in this field.
Prosecutors’ offices also seek attorneys who have a deep respect for the system and the process. Various governmental bodies draft statutes and determine the severity of violating a law. They have been granted this power through elections and the political process. Head prosecutors (often an elected or appointed official) typically determine which issues get priority within the office. As such, law students and attorneys need to be prepared to uphold the laws regardless of their personal views.
Attorneys who derive internal satisfaction from working with victims will also be well-suited as a prosecutor. One of the most rewarding aspects of prosecution is working with victims and fighting for victim’s rights. Although prosecutors represent the government, they are the spokesperson for victims and advocate for them in court. This role requires excellent oral communication and empathy. Victims of crimes are frequently emotional, angry, and frustrated with the system. It is a prosecutor’s role to explain complex issues, to gain trust, to gather information, and to prepare a victim both to testify and to be cross-examined by a defense attorney. Combined with the frequent communication a prosecutor has with judges, defense attorneys, witnesses, and police officers, the value of interpersonal skills and communication cannot be understated.
Lastly, attorneys who thrive as prosecutors also enjoy the challenges of building a case. Prosecutors often have to sift through piles of documents and evidence, analyze the value of each piece independently and in conjunction with the whole, and like a puzzle, fit the pieces together to create the strongest case. They think of likely defenses and prepare counterarguments. They formulate theories of motive and compile evidence to support it. They craft coherent stories to explain the case to a judge and jury.
A law student who enjoys these aspects of practice is likely to do well in prosecution.
While various personalities are well-suited for public defense, there are some traits that are common among them. Public defenders are aware that most people, from the prosecutors to the jury to the public, want to see them fail. They regularly hear from strangers “How can you represent those people?” Rather than feeling disheartened, you will find that most public defenders actually get immense satisfaction from fighting for the “underdog.” Public defenders typically enjoy standing up to the system and see themselves as being on the frontline of upholding the Constitution. For example, the presumption of innocence is a critical right guaranteed to all defendants by the Constitution. Yet, public defenders know that the public often assumes a defendant is guilty from the start. Public defenders must constantly remind a judge and jury of the presumption of innocence and fight to have it upheld.
Since public defenders fight to protect the constitutional rights of all people, employers will be wary of law students who are excited about the prospect of representing “the innocent.” While some defendants are truly innocent, many more are either guilty of the charges, guilty of some but not all charges, or guilty of something but not the charges they are facing. Employers seek attorneys who can take pride in representing the full spectrum of people.
Public defenders typically avoid seeing people in stark terms like “good” or “bad.” They embrace that a person can make a bad decision or commit a bad crime, while maintaining that the person is more than that one action. Public defenders see a variety of factors that may have contributed to a person committing a crime, including economic hardship, mental health issues, drug addiction, and history of abuse. The ability to empathize with a client’s hardships also goes a long way toward building trust with a defendant, which can be an uphill battle. Furthermore, public defenders often appreciate the humanity they see in their clients. A sense of humor at life’s messiness can be helpful in this career.
An important part of being a public defender is the ability to redefine what constitutes “a win.” Of course, public defenders relish the opportunity to present a case at trial, especially when the jury returns a not-guilty verdict, but the reality is that most cases today end in plea agreements. Public defenders quickly learn to view “a win” as successfully getting drug rehabilitation for a client, providing solid evidence to decrease a sentence, or even receiving a genuine “thank you for fighting for me” from a client.
Lastly, public defenders excel in oral communication. They must communicate complicated information to highly-educated prosecutors and judges, as well as to clients who might have very limited education. They need to be able to present a case effectively and tell a compelling story to jury members, whose backgrounds will be diverse.
A law student or attorney who possesses these traits is likely to find public defense to be a rewarding career.
What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Criminal Law?
Prosecutor and public defender offices often seek similar skills and traits. They want new attorneys who are ready to hit the ground running. They often have high caseloads and will want someone who can start taking cases quickly. It will be critical to demonstrate to employers that you have the experience to do so. You can gain that ability during law school in various ways.
Internships and clinics will be among the most important choices you can make in law school to prepare yourself for a career in this field. Employers want to know that you have seen the complexities and range of difficult cases that their attorneys encounter, and that you are still enthusiastic to join their ranks. If possible, take every advantage of using a Third-Year Practice Certificate to stand up in court.
For aspiring public defenders, public defense internships will be most important, but any internship or clinic that show a commitment to poverty law and indigent clients will be helpful. For aspiring prosecutors, prosecution internships will be most important, but any internship or clinics that demonstrates a commitment to public service can be valuable, such as with a government agency or a civil legal aid organization representing victims.
Both introverts and extroverts can excel in this field. If you are unsure about your ability to be a courtroom advocate, explore trial advocacy classes and other public speaking courses in your law school or in the community. Extracurricular activities that are valued include moot court, trial team, and even acting.
Criminal law, criminal procedure, and evidence classes help to show an interest in and knowledge of the issues you are likely to encounter.
Impact of Interning on the Other Side
Both prosecutors and public defenders have varying views on how they evaluate experience on the other side. In large cities or in competitive offices, employers typically dislike experience with the opposing side. This is especially true for public defenders, perhaps less so for prosecutors. Small cities or less-competitive markets might be more forgiving and lenient; however, if they need to decide between two very qualified candidates, one who has been entirely committed to their side and one who has worked on both sides, the employer is likely to lean toward the “committed” candidate.
If you have worked on each side, it will not necessarily be a bar to becoming a public defender or prosecutor, but be prepared to explain it in your cover letter and expect very pointed questions about your commitment during an interview.
Many new law students are not sure which side will suit them best and want to explore by interning on both sides. While this is understandable, both sides are also seeking a commitment to their respective missions, which don’t always align. Shadowing an attorney for a couple days on each side might be a good option.
Preparing for interviews
Once you become a 3L and are interviewing for post-graduate positions, interviews with prosecutors and public defenders are more adversarial and substantive than interviews in most other fields. Depending on the office, interviews often involve hypotheticals, simulations of interviewing a client or victim, oral arguments, or a mock cross-examination of a witness. While some questions might test substantive knowledge, most are testing your ability to think on your feet and are designed to evaluate your thought process. Be sure to articulate how you arrive at an answer to a hypothetical. In addition, be prepared for very direct questions that are designed to test your commitment to their cause.
For prosecutors, their hypotheticals will often test your knowledge of the ethical rules, as well as your ability to issue spot in a fact pattern. While they want to ensure that their attorneys remain within the ethical bounds of the law and understand when to disclose exculpatory material, they also want to ensure that prosecutors know when not to disclose information to the defense.
Many of their hypotheticals will also test a student’s knowledge of the process and obligations of those within the criminal justice system. For example, a prosecutor has ethical obligations to not prosecute someone who is innocent (and to hand over exculpatory information if it exists), but the prosecutor does not need to believe a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That role belongs to the judge or jury, and it is important that a new attorney understands the distinction.
For public defenders, their hypotheticals will test your ethics, particularly your commitment and dedication to your client. Public defenders want to make sure that you will not buckle before a harsh judge or prosecutor. They want to ensure that you are prepared to protect your clients’ rights to the fullest extent within the confines of ethical obligations. You should also be prepared to handle any type of crime.
Public defender offices may or may not tell students in advance if they will be given a fact pattern and will be expected to do either an opening statement, closing statement, cross-examination of a witness, or a mock client meeting. To prepare, it will be helpful to review those sections of a trial advocacy manual and practice giving arguments aloud.
To best prepare for interviews with prosecutors and public defenders, set up a mock interview with your career services advisor. We also recommend speaking to attorneys who currently work or have previously worked at the office to which you are applying.
The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:
- The National District Attorneys Association has trainings, tracks national issues, and contains links for prosecutor job openings throughout the country. http://www.ndaa.org/
- For information about federal prosecutor careers, visit the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Attorney Recruitment & Management. https://www.justice.gov/oarm
- The National Legal Aid & Defender Association is a member organization for public defenders. http://www.nlada.org/
- National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is a professional bar association for both public defenders and private criminal defense lawyers. www.nacdl.org
- Harvard Law School has a career guide for both Prosecution and for Public Defender Programs, created by the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising.
- Yale Law School’s has a career guide for both Criminal Prosecution and for Criminal Defense. https://www.law.yale.edu/student-life/career-development/students/career-guides-advice
Category: Explore Your Career Options