Criminal Law

Job snapshot

SALARY average:

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USD $104,000 GBP £58,000 cad $97,000 AUD $78,000

fixed or variable remuneration: Fixed and variable (equity)

number of open jobs: 3,618+ JOBS ON ZIPRECRUITER


The Role

What Criminal Lawyers Do

Criminal lawyers defend the rights of those accused or convicted of crimes. Although most consider this to be courtroom trials, criminal lawyers work extensively on negotiating plea deals for their clients. In these cases, many incidents never result in a trial at all.

Criminal defense attorneys may further represent their clients during sentencing and appeals, and handle any post-trial issues. Although the vast majority work in private practice or in firms, others work exclusively in the public sector or dedicate at least a portion of their practice to providing defense for the indigent. They may offer a broad spectrum of services or work in a specialty niche, such as DUI defense, defending those accused of sex crimes, or drug defense.

Who would enjoy a career in Criminal Law?

A career in criminal law is ideal for someone who believes that every person has the right to quality defense. Being detail-oriented, an adept communicator, and smooth negotiator are also beneficial.

Who mightn't like the career?

Work as a criminal defense attorney can be harrowing, particularly for those who accept pro-bono defense cases, as rejecting a case is largely unheard of. This means that lawyers often have to focus on the letter of the law, and prove that it wasn’t broken, even if his client has committed a wrong.

Other times, lawyers struggle with the loss of a case, knowing their client was innocent or not deserving of a harsh punishment. For this reason, the career is difficult for people who become emotionally invested in the outcome. Criminal law can also carry intense working hours, especially when the matter has reached a courtroom, so those who can find it difficult push through intense schedules may be best to consider alternatives.




Admittance into an accredited university upon completion of entry exams is the first step in entering law. Quality institutions have rigorous requirements and competition for positions is fierce. A law degree is required in order to practice at any level above the rank of intern or summer associate in the US and Canada. In the UK and Australia, offerings such as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) or the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP), respectively, are available, which allow people with virtually any undergraduate degree to move into law. Each jurisdiction has further requirements, including a bar exam and licensure process.


Those who are aware they’d like to enter into a law career should plan early and apply for a summer associate or internship position while still in school, as the experience will help secure a long-term position after graduation.

Moving into Criminal Law from another career

It can be difficult to transition into law, simply because one must pass legal exams and participate in additional coursework. At the same time, some big firms appreciate diversity and take pride in amassing a staff with unique non-legal backgrounds, as these individuals are better prepared to understand the needs of each sector that is being represented by the firm.

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Graduate / Associate

Role: Incoming lawyers are referred to as associates. Students who are interning may have the distinction of being called a “summer clerk” or “summer associate,” and those fresh from university will be called “first-year associates,” and so on. Lawyers typically hold the title of associate for somewhere between seven and ten years, depending on the firm. During this time, their job is to support the firm’s partners, generally by handling research and reviewing contracts. It’s worth noting that some firms have an “up or out” policy, meaning that if a lawyer is not on the tenure track and does not become a partner within the allotted time, they are asked to leave the firm.

Senior Associate

Role: Generally speaking, the title of senior associate is offered to a lawyer around five years into practice, though each firm will have its own guidelines. During this phase, the senior associate is expected to behave as if he or she is a junior partner. Ownership of projects is expected and the individual should be an expert in the area he or she covers. Tasks of greater importance may be assigned to senior associates by the firm’s partners and senior associates will generally have junior associates they can delegate some of their work to. It’s while working as a senior associate that a lawyer demonstrates to the firm that he or she is an indispensable part of the firm and is already behaving as if a partner.


Role: Associates who have proven themselves and are managing some of their own clients as well as bringing in new clients are typically offered partnerships. The exception to this is firms that have “of counsel” positions, which is a promotion from associate for those not on the partner career track. When a lawyer is offered a partnership role, it’s generally an equity partnership in which the lawyer “buys in” to the practice and then earns a percentage of the profits. As part owner, he also gets a say in the firm’s business decisions. Some firms may offer non-equity partnerships and let their seasoned lawyers take a salary instead of being part owner.

Travel Opportunities

It’s fairly rare for criminal lawyers to travel, unless they’re part of a large firm, have a good reputation and are attracting clients from a distance, or represent large companies.



Entry Level: According to data from PayScale, those beginning their careers have salaries of approximately USD $104,000 in the United States, £58,000 in the United Kingdom, CAD$97,000 in Canada, and AU$78,000 in Australia.

Mid-Career: USD$121,077, £70,800, CAD$110,580, AU$113,943.

Experienced: USD$159,040, £74,340, CAD$121,250, AU$145,816.


Naturally, bonuses and profit sharing are a major part of a partner’s income. With additional payments, an experienced attorney can earn more than USD$307,000, £120,000, CAD$156,000, or AU$206,000.



Why Criminal Lawyers move on

The burnout rate is somewhat high for those trying to make it up the ladder in a larger law firm, particularly in the first couple of years. The ongoing stress and emotional weight of the position can also cause people to seek less-demanding careers.

For criminal lawyers specifically, one may transition to another dispute-focused area such as dispute resolution, arbitration and mediation, or enter the government sector more permanently to assist individuals with less resources.


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