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What Is Criminal Law?

criminal lawyer looking at camera with three criminal lawyers behind her discussing a case

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You may know shows like Law & Order, The Practice, and Better Call Saul for their intense, high-stress, and sometimes emotional scenes, but they’re based on a very real career path in criminal law. So, what is criminal law, and is it as dramatic and extreme as these shows make it out to be?  

Criminal Law Definition

Criminal law is an area of the law that concerns crimes and laws applied to those who commit them. 

There are two main types of criminal law offenses: felonies and misdemeanors. The most serious crimes are felonies, which include offenses like murder, robbery, and arson. Misdemeanors are more minor offenses, like traffic violations or petty thefts. 

According to the FBI, the most common crimes are larceny (theft), burglary, and aggravated assault.

There are federal criminal laws and state-specific ones. A penalty for a crime depends on what kind of crime you’ve committed, where you committed it, how involved you were with the crime, and whether this is your first criminal offense.

What Do People Who Work in Criminal Law Do?

Criminal lawyers apply criminal law to defend clients accused of a crime or hold those who have committed a crime accountable. Much of their work involves going to court to represent their various clients. When they’re not in court, they might research a case and the applicable law or communicate with their clients to update them about their next court appearance.

“A typical day for me starts with a 5 a.m. workout, bond hearings, or court at 9 a.m., running to the next court in one of four jurisdictions,” Amy Lawrence, criminal defense lawyer at The Lovely Law Firm Injury Lawyers, says. “It goes all day with calls to clients or jail visits in between hearings. My last hearing begins at 5 p.m., and I’m home by 7 p.m. if I’m lucky.”

>>MORE: Experience a day in the life of a criminal lawyer with Leo Cussen’s Criminal Law Virtual Experience Program.

Civil vs. Criminal Law

Civil and criminal law are both types of law where someone (or an entity like a business) has been harmed, injured, killed, or violated. Civil law focuses explicitly on disputes between individuals, and court cases are about fixing the wrong one person has committed against another. Usually, these are remedied by one person paying the person they’ve wronged to compensate for the damages they’ve caused.

Examples of Civil Law CasesExamples of Criminal Law Cases
MalpracticeAssault and battery
Custody disputesHomicide
Property damageTheft
Breach of contractIllegal substance possession

In criminal law, the government files the case (rather than a person). The court either finds the person accused guilty or not guilty, or the person accused pleads guilty. If they’re found guilty, they’re punished for the specific crimes they’re found guilty of and usually go to jail or pay a fine as punishment.

Criminal Law Job Titles

There are different types of criminal lawyers depending on who the lawyer is representing. Defense attorneys represent defendants accused of a crime. They may be a private attorney, which means the client pays for their services, or a public defender, who serves clients who can’t afford their own lawyers. On the opposite side, prosecuting attorneys represent the government. Prosecuting attorneys may work at the local, state, or federal level.

In addition to working as a criminal lawyer, many different jobs in the criminal justice field interact with criminal law daily but do not require a law degree. Examples of these jobs include:

  • Criminal profiler
  • Private investigator
  • Victim advocate
  • Financial examiner
  • Forensic psychologist
  • Police officer
  • Security guard
  • Property management technician
  • Bailiff
  • Probation officer
  • Intelligence analyst
  • Fraud investigator

How to Get Into Criminal Law

Getting into criminal law requires advanced education, examination, and a mix of hard law skills and soft skills.


To become a criminal lawyer, you’ll need an advanced law degree. First, you must earn an undergraduate degree. There’s no one required degree, but a major in a related field, like criminal justice, can help you learn more about the field with law enforcement, investigations, and court courses. 

After you complete your bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely have to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Most law schools in the U.S. require this exam. The LSAT tests you on skills you’ll need in law school, including reading comprehension, writing, and analytical skills.

Once in law school, you’ll take core law courses. Many of these will touch on general criminal law practices. In addition, you can take more specific criminal law courses that may focus on certain types of crime or the politics of criminal law. For example, Columbia Law School offers courses in “Policing the Police” and “Civil Liberties and the Response to Terrorism.”

>>MORE: Winston & Strawn Law School Experience Prep Course


Once you’ve gotten your degree, you need to pass the American Bar Association’s bar exam to get certified to work in law.

The exam differs depending on what state you’re in, and you’re only qualified to practice in the state you take your exam in — so if you live in New York but want to practice law in California, you’ll need to take the exam there.

While the exam varies by where you take it, there are six general topics to study: contracts and sales, criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, real property, evidence, and torts.

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To be a successful criminal lawyer, you’ll need standard law skills: research, logical thinking, writing, communication, and analytical skills.

>>MORE: Top Communication Skills for the Workplace

Yet some critical skills specific to the field can make you stand out in criminal law. 

“While critical thinking, being quick on your feet, and being a great oral advocate are all important, it’s empathy, compassion, and storytelling that make the best criminal defense attorney,” Lawrence says. “The best defense attorneys are able to tell the story of their clients in the most meaningful and thoughtful way. They humanize their clients, garner empathy from a jury, and do not just tell you what happened, they show you.”

Pros and Cons of Criminal Law

Criminal law is a human-oriented, fast-paced career that demands your time and emotional energy. Yet this career path can make a real, tangible impact on people’s lives.



Although criminal law requires hard legal skills, there’s a need for soft skills, too, as you’re dealing with real people every day — and your work can truly change the course of their life.

“I have a huge heart, full of compassion and I’m empathetic to a fault — and the idea that we are judged by our worst moment or action just seemed wrong,” Lawrence says. “Even if the client is guilty, the why always plays in my head. Why did they make that choice at that moment? What trauma did they experience to get them here?”

Criminal lawyers can spend a lot of their time interacting with clients and working to understand their stories. 


It turns out criminal law shows aren’t too far-fetched after all. 

“At a young age I wanted to be a lawyer and in particular a criminal defense lawyer,” says Arash Hashemi, attorney at law at Law Offices of Arash Hashemi. “I had no clue what it would be like but I thought it was glamorous from what I had seen in the movies and TV. The whole life seemed fast-paced and exciting. The courtroom drama was the main reason I found it to be attractive. So far I have not been disappointed.”


Long Hours

Criminal lawyers often work long hours. Their days are jam-packed with court appointments and case-related tasks.

“You will have to be in court at 8:30 a.m. and may have to drive to several courts on the same day,” Hashemi explains. “If you are lucky you will be back in your office by lunch time. But don’t think you will have time for lunch, there are lots of cases to go over and prepare.”

Emotionally Draining

“You will be dealing with the suffering and trauma of others on a daily basis,” Lawrence says, “and I’m not talking about autopsy or crime scene photos. It’s the client charged with killing her rapist detailing the abuse and torture pouring her heart out as to why she did what she did. It’s knowing a man sitting in prison for years is innocent and the court turning a blind eye because — hell, he did something, maybe not that but something. It’s sitting in jail watching a client weep uncontrollably as the reality he isn’t walking out sets in.”

Not only is it emotionally draining to learn and be witness to this trauma, but also when you lose a case and realize the impact the court’s decision has on someone’s life.

“You will find yourself disappointed, disheartened, and angry when the system fails, and when prosecutors want a win more than justice,” Lawrence notes. “If you’re thinking about a career in criminal defense be prepared to feel all the feels, get dirty, to fight, to be angry, and in spite of it all — get up again, fight the good fight, search for justice, and demand better.”

Learn more about other law career paths:

Image credit: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

Zoe Kaplan is a Senior Writer at Forage. Prior to joining Forage, she wrote and edited career and workplace content for Fairygodboss, the largest career community for women.