Criminal law: area of practice

Image of lawyer
Some practitioners in this field deal purely with defence work while others specialise in prosecution, explains Kate from Cartwright King.
A career in criminal law is a difficult one to choose at the moment because it is changing rapidly.

Some practitioners in this field deal purely with defence work; others specialise in prosecution. Prosecution lawyers, often working for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), work to prove a case beyond all reasonable doubt to convict a defendant, whereas defence lawyers aim to achieve justice for their client.

Many cases are brought on behalf of the Crown in the form of a police investigation following an arrest. But other agencies such as local authorities, landlords, the RSPCA and the British Transport Police also commence proceedings.

How long can criminal cases last? 

Serious cases allocated to the Crown Court can take a long time to complete. If a trial is necessary this can sometimes take eight or nine months. Less serious cases remain in the magistrates’ court either for sentencing or for trial, which would take place two or three months later.

For a simple case at the magistrates’ court one lawyer could deal with the entire procedure. This would include advising, taking instructions from the client and conducting all hearings, including the trial. Some cases at the Crown Court are extremely complex and involve a team of paralegals to assist with the preparation.

Defence lawyers are usually involved with cases from an early stage. They are required to attend the police station after an arrest, to be present during the interview and then meet the client at court. Clients remanded in custody need to be visited and kept informed about their cases. This is normally done face to face, but occasionally it is done via video link.

Prosecution lawyers become involved in cases at a later stage. They communicate with clients, defendants, witnesses, the police, magistrates and defence lawyers in preparation for a trial or court appearance.

How often will I be in court as a criminal solicitor? 

Criminal law practitioners can have heavy caseloads, often meaning they are in court almost every day. Time in the office preparing cases is limited and very precious.

Often, lawyers working in this area have to be available out of hours, which can sometimes make maintaining a work/life balance challenging. You have to be prepared to keep your telephone on and you might need to attend an interview at a police station at short notice during unsociable hours. While some days might not be very busy, on others you might be preparing trials at the office into the evening.

There is little doubt that one of the best aspects of working as a defence lawyer is when the court returns an acquittal following a trial. Whether you have supported an innocent client through to the right outcome, or you have used the law to show that the opposing case is defective, using your skills and expertise as an advocate is very rewarding. For prosecution lawyers, successfully proving beyond reasonable doubt that a defendant should be convicted is satisfying. The drawback with working in criminal law is that managing the procedures and red tape can be frustrating, time consuming and difficult to explain to clients.

Developments and innovations affecting this area of law attract lots of media attention, keeping our work interesting and topical. The work is often affected by political interests too, for example the re-classification of drugs, and the possession of bladed articles requiring mandatory prison sentences.

Is criminal law recession-proof?

Over the last few years, the economic climate has meant there is an increasing squeeze on funding for the criminal justice system. A career in criminal law is a difficult one to choose at the moment because it is changing rapidly. There are fewer specialist firms resulting in a lack of competition. This may reduce the standards of client care and allow solicitors to discreetly ‘cherry pick’ cases. However, I am optimistic that this will not be the case in a few years’ time.

What skills do criminal lawyers need?

  • Strong advocacy, listening and communication skills.
  • The ability to help and identify with others.
  • Extensive knowledge and the ability to be generous with it.

What does a graduate job as a trainee criminal lawyer involve?

Trainees in criminal law are closely supervised in all aspects of the job, but there are opportunities for early responsibility. Typically they assist in the preparation of cases, help with investigation work and help to run cases at both magistrates’ court and Crown Court. The work usually involves a lot of client contact, for example visiting prisons and police stations and attending conferences with counsel.

Kate Macnab is a director Cartwright King. She trained as a legal executive and then as a solicitor.