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legal practice areas

Criminal Law

Why choose criminal law?

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.

How to study criminal law effectively?

Criminal law is a complex legal area. Those suited to studying criminal law are often those who possess high levels of both empathy and logic, and the ability to digest complex legalities whilst managing to take a human approach to client work. Studying criminal law will teach you not only about yourself, but wider society and the psychology of a crime. Many successful criminal lawyers cite being a victim of crime as the reason for going into this area.

At the University of Law, we offer undergraduate criminology degrees such as BA (Hons) Criminology and BA (Hons) Criminology and Sociology.

To work as a criminal law solicitor, you can either take the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), or if you are eligible, you can study the Legal Practice Course (LPC).

If you qualify through the SQE, you will also need to complete two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). To prepare for the SQE, we recommend studying one of our SQE courses, which have been designed to give you the knowledge and skills for a successful career as a solicitor.

If you’re eligible to study the LPC, you will need to get a two-year training contract with a law firm. To find out what route is right for you, see our Becoming a Solicitor page.

Once you complete your two-year training contract or QWE, you can apply to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to be admitted as a solicitor.

To become a criminal barrister, you will need to have completed an undergraduate law degree, or if you are a non-law graduate, a conversion course, before completing the Bar Practice Course (BPC). You will then need to secure pupillage.

How to become a criminal lawyer?

Many attributes are important to becoming a criminal lawyer.

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.

Criminal law work experience

Gaining work experience at the local court or Citizens Advise Bureau is the perfect way to get a taste for criminal law. Our Employability Service also offers support with this during your studies. The experience of working with real clients on a placement is invaluable. We work with employers to organise work experience opportunities nationally that could prove valuable in furthering your career.

We can also help you to get external placements in a range of not-for-profit organisations, providing members of the public with free legal advice and representation.

What is the difference between civil and criminal law?

Civil law aims to achieve compensation or an agreement related to finances. This law deals with disputes between individuals and organisations. In contrast, criminal law seeks punishment or penalty for an offence. This law has got the ultimate aim to maintain the stability of society and criminal justice.

What is the average salary of a criminal lawyer?

A newly qualified solicitor in a firm outside of the city or smaller criminal practice may expect to earn around £20,000 to £40,000. An average criminal solicitor salary in London is anything from £40,000 to £80,000 based on five years’ experience according to For those with over ten years' experience, earnings can range from £40,000 to £120,000. Those based in London and bigger cities will often earn more too.

Criminal law information

  • LawCareers.Net is a comprehensive, one-stop online resource created for future lawyers and those who recruit them: LawCareers.Net
  • Over 160 law firms and barristers' chambers independently reviewed. The student's guide to the legal profession: Chambers and Partners student guide
  • Expert advice to master legal CVs and apply for training contracts and vacation schemes with top law firms: Target Law
  • The Criminal Law Solicitors' Association represents criminal law solicitors throughout England and Wales: Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association


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