Criminal law is probably the most widely known area of legal practice – and from media coverage it might sometimes seem to be the only area of law. However, unlike the media focus, criminal law covers a considerable breadth of work ranging from motoring offences to murder but also ‘white collar crimes’ such as fraud and corruption. The majority of criminal defence solicitors will be working in the areas of general crime, usually in a high street law firm or, increasingly due to changes in funding, in larger firms focusing on a range of publicly funded work. Some of these general criminal firms will also have the capacity and expertise to undertake white collar, although this has traditionally been undertaken by specialist firms. Don’t forget, however, defence work is only one side of the equation. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is the principle prosecuting body in England and Wales and employs over 2,000 solicitors. This is in addition to the other agencies, such as the Serious Fraud Office and HM Revenue & Customs.
What does this type of 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. However, 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, perhaps, 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?
Obviously, as a solicitor you need the same core skills as a lawyer working in any field – the attention to detail, organisation skills etc. However, skills that are particularly relevant for those working in criminal law are:
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 also 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’. And, while 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.
The biggest issue facing this sector at present is funding. The CPS has been affected by the all-round cuts to government spending putting increased pressure on prosecutors. However, most visible has been the impact on solicitors and barrister undertaking publicly funded defence work. Fees paid to lawyers have been cut dramatically, and the government is pushing ahead with plans to reduce the number of firms who can take on legal aid criminal work. This has set the scene for on-going action by lawyers working in this field: from public demonstrations to the refusal to take on work. In the short term, there seems to be no resolution in sight.
As a result, opportunities to begin a career in general crime are reducing, and the prospects of a successful (financially rewording – many would say sustainable) long term career also seem limited outside some of the larger criminal defence firms. Firms which once undertook criminal work as one part of their practice are now dropping this work, and those which undertook more criminal work are merging or attempting to move into related areas such as white collar crime.
In the area of white collar crime, there has been a growth in the number of fraud and regulatory cases, and more attention has been focused on the activities of corporations, both in the UK and overseas.
What's it like in practice
Find out what some of our people who have practised criminal law say about it, and the advice that they would give those interested in a career in this area. Look at the following Case Studies:
- Dan OBoyle (mixed criminal (defence)/immigration caseload in a regional firm)
- Angela Smith (prosecutor for the CPS)
- Aruna Verma (Tutor - University of Law, London Bloomsbury)
The student guides to the legal profession have useful information working in criminal law. Look at:
- Lawcareers.net: http://www.lawcareers.net
- Chambers and Partners Student guide: http://www.chambersstudent.co.uk
- Target Law: https://targetjobs.co.uk/career-sectors/law-solicitors
- Criminal Law Solicitors' Association: http://www.clsa.co.uk