It’s been ages since I talked about criminal law here on LLB and the one thing I consistently get asked about is what it’s like being a criminal lawyer. With the extra down time I’ve had during the quarantine it seemed like the perfect time to sit down and actually write a post about the best things about being a criminal lawyer.
The best things are pretty intertwined but I’ll try my best to separate them out into paragraphs.
1. The Ability to Help People
Being a criminal defense lawyer you get to help people through what is often one of the worst, most difficult experiences of their life. I often get asked ‘how can you represent these people’ and, in short, the answer I give is that everyone deserves someone by their side – not condoning the behavior but being there. There is something powerful about standing with someone in their darkest moment. Everyone deserves that. You can read more about my answer on ‘how i defend criminals’ in my FAQ blog post.
2. The Variety in the Job
I am not someone who does well with a desk job. I hate sitting still and get easily distracted. With many (most) areas of law you’re going to spend a lot of time at a desk behind a computer. With criminal law, things are different. You can build your practice to be more desk-oriented if you like that (i.e. working on just a few length, high-profile cases a year that have weeks of prep before Court) or you can run a high volume practice being constantly on your toes. I have a mix of the two, having prepared for and worked on a 9 week second-degree murder trial and currently working on a two week home invasion trial, but I also have a lot of smaller cases that tend to move quickly. What this means is that I am in Court most days getting to do a bunch of different things. I may have a guilty plea in the morning and 3 or 4 bail hearings in the afternoon. I may be in a Courthouse in one city in the morning, and a totally different one in the afternoon.
The prep work I do is also really varied. Sometimes I will spend a morning negotiating back and forth with a prosecutor, other mornings I’ll be reviewing disclosure by reading police statements or watching surveillance footage.
Truly one of the great blessings of my life is finding a career that keeps me on my toes in which the days really do fly by.
3. Constant Learning
Unlike some other areas of law where developments and changes may come once or twice a year with criminal law things are changing constantly. New case law is made every single day and so the learning process never really ends.
For example, if you have an assault charge where the client says he was defending himself you would need to research the current state of the law on self-defence. You would turn first to the most recent amendments to the Criminal Code but then would check the case law to see what the common law dictates about this defense. You would have a handle on this and how to proceed prior to your trial. Then, if you got another self-defense case two years later, you would actually need to do this process again as the law will very likely have changed since then.
In addition to staying on top of the changes to the law, you also get different issues coming up in your cases all of the time. This is especially true around scientific evidence. I’ve done, for example, quite a few cases now with blood spatter evidence. In so doing I had to spend a ton of time reading papers and speaking with hired experts to understand this evidence. I also have my first few cases right now where fingerprint evidence is the main issue so I have had the great joy of unpacking all of the science behind that and I find doing that so interesting, so fascinating and frankly really fun.
The areas of criminal law that true crime lovers find ‘sexy’ like fingerprint evidence, DNA, arson, & wrongful confessions really are a part of this job. While TV shows clearly exaggerate what it’s like to be a criminal lawyer, the basics are usually pretty accurate. If you’re interested in two crime two of the top documentaries I recommend are: The Confessions, a 2010 documentary about the Norfolk Four & The Central Park 5 by director Ken Burns (not the Netflix documentary, which is good but has some errors).
4. Being in Court
This is kind of covered under ‘variety of the job’ but it definitely deserves it’s own paragraph. More so than any other area of law, in criminal law you get to be in Court constantly. I have quite a few friends from law school who pursued other areas of law and in the 6 years we’ve been lawyers they have been in Court only 2 or 3 times. I’m in Court usually 4 days a week. This is a definite ‘best part’ for me, but of course whether this is a pro or a con depends on your personality. I love being in Court but I have always loved public speaking and thinking on my feet. Being in Court is an experience in which things won’t follow an exact pattern – the judge will ask questions you may not have thought of, a witness may say something new, or a prosecutor may offer you a last minute deal. All of these things require you thinking on your feet and acting fast.
5. The Independence & Endless Possibilities
This is a bit of a double-edged sword, which is why I left it for the end. Unlike most areas of law where you commonly will work for a firm, criminal lawyers are predominantly sole-practitioners or they work in a firm with a few other lawyers. Even if you do work for a firm (or work as an associate when you are starting out) the actual practice of criminal law is inherently independent. No one else is standing up with you in Court doing your job, it’s only you. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have colleagues and co-workers you workshop trial strategies with and generally ‘shop talk’ but at the end of the day you are practicing on your own.
I really like this because of the flexibility it affords when it comes to work/home life. Since most prep work is done alone, I can do that at 11am in my office, but I can also have a morning off and instead do the work at 8pm.
When it comes to ‘endless possibilities’ what I mean is that your career is really what you make of it. You can develop a niche in a certain area of cases (driving offenses or drug cases for example), and you can also decide when to hire assistants and how to build out your own practice. You can choose to practice in only certain jurisdictions (cities) and you can really make as much money as you are willing to put in the work for. There is no salary cap unlike working for a firm or being a prosecutor where salaries are mandated. In being your own criminal lawyer there is no roof in the finance department.
There is so much I could say about the best things about being a criminal lawyer but I think the above covers the heart of it. It’s funny that it has taken a global pandemic reducing my criminal law workload to actually give me the d@mn time to write this post, lol, but I hope you enjoyed (finally) reading it. Feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments; I’m happy to answer!
Update: I also wrote a post on the worst things about being a criminal lawyer, so give that a read as well!
Ps. Because I like to share my outfit details whenever possible, here are pieces similar to what I’m wearing in these photos. The top and skirt both sold out so quickly, so I’ve linked similar ones: