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What is criminal law? A guide for aspiring solicitors

19 Aug 2023, 16:06

Strong advocacy, listening and communication skills are essential to work in criminal law.

A pair of hands in handcuffs

Developments and innovations affecting criminal law attract lots of media attention, keeping the 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.

What is criminal law?

Some practitioners in criminal law 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.

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.

What do criminal law solicitors do?

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 either done face to face or 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.

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.

What is life like as a criminal law trainee?

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.

What skills do you need to be a criminal law solicitor?

Strong advocacy, listening and communication skills are needed in criminal law in a manner above and beyond those of other areas of practice. The ability to help and identify with others will be valuable when dealing with clients, and the ability to work well under pressure will assist with the nature of the cases and timelines.

How much can I earn in criminal law?

Criminal law has suffered in recent years due to government funding cuts on the judicial system. It is not impossible that trainees will earn the minimum recommended amount set by the SRA, but the amount can be as low as the national minimum wage (in the sense that there is no regulation or law that enforces a higher rate of pay). That said, successful criminal law practitioners can go on to lead well-remunerated careers depending on the type and scale of the work. You can take a look at our article on How much you can earn as a trainee solicitor to get a broader picture of how much targetjobs’ advertising law firms pay trainees.

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This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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