A career in criminal law can be challenging but rewarding. Every day, you deal directly with clients for whom the outcome of your advocacy might impact every aspect of their lives. Stakes are high and intensely personal. So what does it take to be an effective criminal lawyer?
1. It’s highly impactful, rewarding work
“Coming into contact with the criminal justice system, as a defendant or as a victim, can be one of the most stressful times of a person’s life,” said Yasmin Olsen, a Māori Crown prosecutor working for New Zealand criminal law firm Kayes Fletcher Walker.
“As prosecutors, we’re one of the faces of that system and we make decisions that have a direct impact on that experience. We can’t hide from that: we’re held accountable for those decisions, often in open court, in front of that person and their family.”
This adds a layer of accountability and objectivity to the work of both prosecutors and defence lawyers.
“Criminal law is an intensely emotional and painful time for those who have been charged with an offence,” explained criminal lawyer James Torcetti. “My role is to advance their interests and protect them without judgment.”
The role demands a unique mix of pragmatism and compassion. Often, defendants come from circumstances of social disadvantage; an innate understanding of social inequity can be crucial at both advocacy and sentencing.
2. You need to develop confidence in the courtroom
Much of a criminal lawyer’s work is done in court. Effective criminal lawyers quickly develop confidence in a courtroom setting and get to know key contacts within the criminal justice system. More than most areas of practice, criminal law requires clear and persuasive courtroom advocacy.
“This is a conversation between you and the court,” said James. “There is this moment that occurs in advocacy where everything falls away. You have done all the preparation; you know all the crucial facts and law and you know your submissions inside out. You are addressing the court, and when you look down, you realise you don’t need your bullet point submissions. You take your notes off the lectern and put them face down on the bar table.
“This is the moment where you have made the calculated decision to let go of superfluous submissions and can cut to the core of what will make the biggest difference for your client.”
It is this moment that distinguishes a criminal lawyer, certainly in the eyes of their client.
“This is when your client’s trust and faith in you is validated. This is one of the many reasons why I love what I do,” said James.
Much of this comes from experience and can mean criminal law particularly suits lawyers who prefer courtroom work to deep research and written submissions.
3. Moral clarity is important
Contrary to popular stereotypes, moral clarity is crucial to being a good criminal lawyer.
A strong belief that every person accused of a crime deserves a fair trial and robust defence – and prosecution – is a prerequisite for the job.
“For me personally, being a Māori Crown prosecutor adds another layer of complexity,” Yasmin Olsen told the New Zealand Law Students’ Careers Guide. “However, that immediate accountability means we’re careful to ensure the decisions we’re making are responsible, fair, and balanced.”
James understands that his role requires an innate sense of objectivity.
“I can represent the undoubtedly guilty without batting an eyelid,” said James. “It is not my job to pass moral judgment on our clients but to ensure their rights are protected and their interests are advanced so that people who are innocent can benefit in the same manner.”
Indeed, his deepest moral conflict comes when an innocent person pleads guilty.
“The most challenging part entering pleas of guilty on behalf of innocent people, who for a multitude of reasons are making a commercial decision,” said James. “They may wish to avoid the risk of a trial, the cost of a trial, or be affected by the pure lack of funding available from Legal Aid.”
4. You can positively impact lives on a personal level
In contrast to many areas of practice, criminal lawyers can bear a highly personal impact on the lives of their clients.
“Our clients have a moment - the same moment every time – where they feel like they have been punched in the guts, they have no idea what is going to happen or how to move forward,” said James. “It is our role as criminal lawyers to map out a plan of attack, provide all the options, and offer a degree of certainty about the future. This could involve being in custody, with a conviction on record, a fine, or withdrawal of charges.”
This makes the work diverse and intellectually stimulating, every single day.
“At the end of the day, you have an interesting and challenging job that can make a difference to people,” said James. “Why do I do criminal law? The elation of building a solid rapport with your clients, doggedly pursuing their rights through the justice system, and ultimately coming to a favourable result. Depending on context a sentence that ends ‘with immediate release on parole’ is just as satisfying as ‘not guilty’.
5. It’s fulfilling work - and sometimes, you can outwit criminals
If you are considering a criminal law, it can be an immensely fulfilling pursuit.
As a junior prosecutor for Kayes Fletcher Walker, Yasmin was pleasantly surprised by the amount of time she spent in court, right from the start.
“Initially, these appearances include bails, sentencings, and pre-trials, but also judge-alone and jury trials, where you’ll get to open the case to the jury, lead evidence, possibly cross-examine the defendant, and close the case. You spend at least a full day in court every week, sometimes every day. You figure out quite quickly if it’s something you will enjoy long-term,” said Yasmin.
The nature of the work means you likely possess insider insights into crime, a perk James realised when a tax office scammer called to attempt extortion. Faced with an experienced criminal lawyer, the scammer was quickly dissuaded - and the exchange was recorded and published in the media.
“There will always be tasks you don’t like, but there is so much to like about being a criminal lawyer,” said James. “It might be something small - a friendly colleague, or good relationships with fellow practitioners or police officers as you brainstorm how to work in a ‘Tiger King’ reference into submissions. Or it might be major - like mitigating a sentence well below what even I might have expected, or securing a ‘not guilty’ verdict.”
“No one comes to a solicitor’s office smiling about their circumstances,” said James. “If I can get them smiling pleased with the result, I find that immeasurably fulfilling.