When considering a career in the law, there are many options available. Attorneys practice is a wide array of sectors along the spectrum. Focusing on a specific practice area is one way to begin building a successful law career.
One of the largest focuses in the American legal system is criminal law. Criminal law is loosely defined as “A system of law concerned with those who commit crimes,” but that does not really define what a criminal law attorney does. The predominant number of criminal lawyers is in criminal defense, with the majority of the rest acting as prosecutors.
Prosecutors or prosecuting attorneys represent federal, state or local governments in criminal cases against those accused of illegal activity. The majority of prosecutors work in state or district attorney’s offices; there are far fewer prosecutors at the federal level. Common job titles are “Assistant District Attorney” or “Assistant State’s Attorney” as the district attorney or state’s attorney is often an elected official.
Prosecutors are considered public servants. They participate in the investigation of crimes, present evidence in court, and try to determine the punishment a defendant should receive. Depending on the size of the federal circuit, district or state prosecutors represent, job duties may vary—for example, in small jurisdictions prosecutors may be responsible for all types of prosecution, ranging from homicide to traffic violations, whereas in larger jurisdictions prosecutors are generally focused in a specific area of criminal law.
Prosecutors spend a large amount of time in courtrooms, so they should be comfortable speaking in front of people and have trial experience. Prosecutors are also well-served to have a sense of civic duty and fairness—successful prosecution leads to an individual’s loss of rights, so the job must be taken very seriously.
Criminal Defense Attorneys
On the other side are criminal defense attorneys. Defense lawyers make sure that anyone accused of a crime receives adequate counsel. Defense lawyers may work in private practice, or for a public defender’s office. They possess many of the same skills as prosecutors, but are instead working in defense of the person accused of a crime rather than in opposition.
The major difference between criminal defense and representing defendants in civil court is that in a civil case, the preponderance of the evidence needs only show that a defendant is 51% liable, whereas in a criminal case the prosecutor must prove to judge or jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The best criminal defense attorneys make sure that reasonable doubt is always there.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys deal with crimes which consist of three elements: an act, a mental state, and the intent to do social harm. These crimes are classified in two categories:
- Misdemeanors: lesser crimes that are often punishable by fine or probation, including traffic violations, petty theft, and in some jurisdictions marijuana possession
- Felonies: more serious crimes that warrant imprisonment, including rape, grand theft, assault, battery, homicide
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are essential for the criminal justice process. These careers involve working long hours, but with the added satisfaction of knowing that justice is being done. Either way is a fulfilling path to work in the law.