1. What is Criminal Law?
Criminal law is any sort of legal practice that has to do with the criminal justice system. Generally speaking, this includes prosecuting and defending individuals accused on crimes. Although the roles of criminal lawyers vary in different countries, in the United States the most common jobs for attorneys interested in criminal law are jobs as prosecutors or defense attorneys. Prosecutors file and prosecute criminal charges based upon the jurisdictions laws and practices. Defense attorneys aggressively defend their clients rights and innocence to ensure that the criminal justice system and all processes involved with prosecution are fair and just. Criminal law attorneys often conduct trials right from the beginning of their careers, and some criminal law attorneys will go on to file and argue appeals as they become more experienced.
2. Where is Crimainal Law practiced?
Attorney Generals Office (federal): Attorneys who work for the Attorney Generals Office prosecute federal crimes and crimes committed on federal property.
Attorney Generals Office (state): The California Attorney General represents the state of California in civil and criminal matters before trial, appellate and the supreme courts of California and the United States.
County District Attorneys Office: Most county attorneys offices prosecute felonies and misdemeanors that are committed within the countys borders.
City Attorneys Office: Some counties only prosecute felonies, leaving the misdemeanor offenses to the city attorneys office to prosecute. City attorneys general prosecute minor code enforcement cases as well.
Defense Attorneys Federal Public Defenders: Federal public defenders defend individuals accused of federal offenses who are being prosecuted by the Attorney Generals Office.
State Public Defenders: The Office of the State Public Defender works solely on death penalty appeals, representing indigent capital defendants in the California Supreme Court and the United State Supreme Court.
County Public Defenders: Some counties, including Santa Clara County, have governmental offices for public defenders, who defend indigent criminal defendants in charges brought by the County Attorneys Office. Many counties also have Alternate Public Defender Offices (ADOs) in addition to their Public Defender Office. ADOs represent individuals when a conflict precludes the Public Defender from taking the case.
Private Practice: Many criminal defense attorneys work in private practice, either in a small firm or solo practitioners office. Private criminal defense attorneys can either be retained by individual defendants or appointed by a judge to represent a particular defendant. They are generally paid at a flat rate although some work on an hourly basis.
Contract work: Some smaller counties and cities do not have an official Public Defenders Office. Instead, they often contract with individuals or individual firms to represent indigent criminal defendants within the city or county. Even counties with Public Defenders will contract out criminal defense work if a conflict prevents the Public Defender’s Office and the ADO from representing the defendant. Contract work is generally assigned through the Independent Defense Counsel’s Office (IDO)
Appellate Projects: Individuals convicted of crimes are entitled to an appeal. Each appellate district in California has an appellate project that contracts with attroneys to handle these appeals. Although attorneys have the option to present an oral argument, most appellate work is now a paper practice.
3. What Courses and Academic Experiences would be helpful?
Although most criminal cases are pled out, criminal law is one of the few practices left where attorneys will regularly conduct jury trials. A person interested in criminal trial work should select courses that demonstrate an interest in public speaking.
(Please note that the following is not an exhaustive list)
- Criminal Law
- Criminal Procedure/Adv Crim Pro
- Trial Techniques/Adv Trial Techniques
- Jury Law & Strategies
- Advocacy/Honors Moot Court
- California Post Conviction Procedures
- Northern California Innocence Project
- Domestic Violence Seminar
- Drug Abuse Law Seminar
- Judicial Externship
- Juvenile Court Law Seminar
- Juvenile Justice Topics
- Righting Wrongful Convictions: Policy and Legislative Reform
- The Prison System
- Understanding Capital Punishment Law
4. What timeline should I be following?
There is no set timeline for entering the criminal law field, but there are a few things to consider.
Criminal law jobs, particularly those with a government agency, are very competitive. They will likely become more competitive in the future if local government continue to suffer budget problems. Competitve applicants will have a proven interest in criminal law. That does not mean that you should not seek out non-criminal opportunities, but if you are applying for a summer or post-graduate position and you do not have experience with criminal law, your application will likely not be as strong as many of your peers. Anything you can do to make yourself stand out in the application process is good, especially experience working within a prosecution or defense office. A volunteer internship during the summer following your first year may give you the leg up you need to land a paid position the following summer. If you do not work in criminal law over your first summer, definitely try to arrange a semester internship during your second year to build your resume and demonstrate your commitment to criminal law. Offices also like to see courtroom experience (take trial techniques and moot court, and consider going out for the trial team), strong research and writing skills (moot court, law review or another journal, and publications) and excellent public speaking skills (moot court, FLY, leadership experiences, previous debate or public speaking experience).
You should also consider enrolling as a student intern with the Northern California Innocence Project. The Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office has hired former NCIP students to Deputy Public Defender positions. NCIP’s home page is here.
A few typical interview questions include:
Why you are interested in criminal defense or prosecution?
What experience do you have with public speaking?
Hypothetical questions, such as “How would you feel defending someone of a rape you know they committed?” or “When you are prosecuting someone for a crime and you have are not sure whether you have the correct defendant, what do you do?”
What other experiences in your life have been influential and/or would help you connect with a jury?
How can you contribute to our office?
Why our office instead of [another county, state, federal, city, private practice, etc.]?
In addition, DA and PD offices will often ask you to prepare an opening statement or closing statement to present to them as part of your interview process. One of the main purposes behind the hypothetical questions and the opening and closing statements is to see how well you can think on your feet and under pressure.
Department of Justice internship applications are due the September prior to the summer during which the internship would take place. Applications for summer positions in some counties, such as Santa Clara, are often due several months in advance. A few counties have paid summer internships (between 2L and 3L year), for which they hire students during the on campus interview process in the fall. If you are willing to travel to a less populated county for the summer, if may be easier to get at least a volunteer position at the last minute. Semester internships are normally less competitive and can be done for credit at many local county offices.
Some DA and Public Defenders also have paid post-bar law clerk positions. Students interested in these openings should contact these offices in the fall or early spring of their third year.
If you are interested in federal prosecution, the way almost all new U.S. Attorneys are hired is through the Attorney Generals Honors Program.
For those who may be seeking a position after graduation, it is helpful to note that most DA/PD offices and other government offices require that you must be a member of the Bar (i.e., have passed the Bar) in order to apply and be considered for a permanent position. Additionally, be prepared for a more bureaucratic hiring process than you might find in private practice. Very few city, county or state governmental agencies will extend job offers before bar results are received, so if waiting up to more than a year after many of your peers working for firms have received their job offers to find out about employment is not your cup of tea, you might want to try something else. Most hire using civil service guidelines as well, so connections and good internships do not automatically translate into a job offer. However, the dedication you demonstrate during an internship will certainly have an influence over any decison to hire you.
5. What Professional Organizations and Associations can I join to meet people and find out more?
- California Bar Association Criminal Law Section
- American Bar Association Criminal Law Section
- Northern California Innocence Project
- California Attorneys for Criminal Justice
- Many professional organizations are available on Linkedin:
6. What job search reference resources should I check out for further information?
Look at the websites for any county (or city or state or local federal office) in which you may be interested in working. Some post internship application instructions and, once your have your license, the jobs you will be eligible for are normally posted on the human resources page.
- Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender
- Santa Clara County Office of the District Attorney
- Sixth District Appellate Project
- Santa Clara County Independent Defense Counsel Office:408-491-4250
- Federal Public Defender for the Northern District
- Northern California U.S. Attorneys Office
- Attorney Generals Honors Program.
Also, be sure to check out SCU Law Jobs for criminal law job postings!
7. Which faculty members at SCU have practice(d) Criminal Law?
- Chuck Gillingham
- Cookie Ridolfi
- Dan Nishigaya
- Ed Steinman
- Ellen Kreitzberg
- Gerald Uelmen
- Judge Griffin Bonini
- Linda Starr
- Kyle Graham
8. Advice on Criminal Law from Professor Ed Steinman
The most recognized human image in law is that of the criminal lawyer fighting for a client in the courtroom, the battlefield for justice. The image is a fitting one; for in the criminal courtroom, issues are decided in the crucible of adversarial testing that dramatically affect the lives of people in ways so intimately as to touch our very souls and define the way we relate to one another in society. But criminal law is as intensely intellectual as it is raw with human emotion. The hopes and fears, wisdom and human frailty, all that it means to be human, life in its infinite variety; all these form the dynamic precedents of criminal law. It is well that criminal law serves as the repository for the folklore of law, for criminal law is how we as a society define ourselves.
Interest in criminal law goes beyond the colorful. Criminal law is concerned with tranquility, the first domestic responsibility of government. In this regard, those who hold liberty dear will find criminal law to be of compelling interest because the subject matter of criminal law deals with the ability of the government to set and shape behavioral norms. Apart from the vibrancy of criminal law and the fundamental importance of its philosophical underpinnings, there is also a practical attraction to criminal law, and that is the emphasis on lawyering skills.
For students seeking to concentrate their studies in the area of criminal law, previously listed in this booklet offers a comprehensive list of suggested courses. The foundation classes in these offerings are the first-year Criminal Law course and the upper-division Evidence and Criminal Procedure courses. For those considering practice in a particular aspect of criminal law, the law school offers more specialized courses, such as: Advanced Criminal Procedure, Federal Courts and Jurisdiction, Federal Criminal Litigation, Juvenile Court Law Seminar, Law and Psychiatry Seminar, and Drug Abuse Law Seminar.
Students may also pursue the Public Interest and Social Justice certificate with special emphasis in criminal jurisprudence.
Since criminal law provides an excellent beginning for those desiring courtroom experienceand may well be the young lawyers only opportunity for developing advocacy skillsthe law school offers an array of course offerings in the skills area, such as:Trial Techniques, Advanced Trial Techniques, Appellate Advocacy and Moot Court, Persuasion and Advocacy, Northern California Innocence Project, and Criminal Justice Externship and Seminar.