Criminal law is the most widely known area of legal practice, with work ranging from motoring offences and murder, to white collar crimes like fraud and corruption.
The majority of criminal defence solicitors will work in areas of general crime, usually in a high street law firm or larger firms focusing on a range of publicly funded work. Some general criminal law firms have the capacity and expertise to undertake white collar crime, although this is traditionally undertaken by specialist firms.
However don’t forget, defence work is only one side of the equation. There is also prosecution: the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is the principle prosecuting body in England and Wales, in addition to the other agencies, such as the Serious Fraud Office and HM Revenue & Customs.
What does a criminal lawyer do?
The work of a solicitor practising in crime will vary considerably depending on the type of criminal work undertaken and whether you are a defence or prosecution solicitor.
If you do work in the area of general crime, your day is unlikely to be dull and it is uncommon to spend all day at your desk under a pile of paperwork – although there is a sizable amount of bureaucracy so you won’t escape. You are likely on any given day to be involved in liaising between your client and counsel (if a barrister has been instructed to represent your client), reviewing evidence, taking instructions; you may also be involved in a conference with your client and counsel. You could be out of the office meeting your client anywhere – at court, at a police station or in prison.
You may even find yourself representing your client in front of magistrates, although the more serious cases are still predominantly handled by barristers.
While the overall hours are not uniformly long they can be unpredictable, and if you are at a firm which provides a duty solicitor service, you could be ‘on call’ 24 hours.
There are many similarities between white collar and general crime – broadly speaking you fulfil exactly the same role and have the same objective. However there are also considerable differences. The biggest of these is the quantity of materials you have to master. The nature of a corruption case means there is likely to be fairly complex documents. A second major difference is the length a case may last – some fraud cases can last years.
What skills are required?
Communication skills – the breadth of your potential audience is vast – from a client with mental health problems who has been charged with a criminal offence, through the businessman accused of money laundering, to the barrister you are instructing, the magistrate or a judge.
You will need a thick skin and a non-judgemental attitude – be prepared to encounter terrible situations and clients under a considerable amount of stress. Not only this but you will find yourself representing the client you acted for just months previously, possibly having been charged with the same offence – despite you doing everything you could to help last time.
The unpredictability of criminal work means that you need the ability to react quickly and ‘think on your feet’. Whilst it is a cliché, being a defence lawyer does require the desire to ‘stand up for the rights of your client’.
If you work in the white collar sector, involved in complex fraud, money laundering or bribery cases, you need good business, financial and numerical acumen to make sense of the information.