Skip to content
Main Content

What does a criminal lawyer do?

Criminal lawyers are trial attorneys who either prosecute criminal offenses on behalf of the federal or state government or represent criminal defendants. Criminal lawyers sometimes specialize in either federal or state criminal law, as the two systems have different crimes, courts, rules of procedure and evidence, and sentencing procedures.

In Maryland, the Attorney General’s Office prosecutes certain types of crimes: white-collar
and insurance fraud, Medicaid fraud and environmental crimes. The Criminal Appeals Division
of the Attorney General’s Office handles all appeals of convictions. In each county and in the city of Baltimore, a State's Attorney’s Office represents the state in all other criminal prosecutions. As criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel, each jurisdiction has an Office of the Public Defender, which represents indigent defendants.

Generally, all federal criminal prosecutions are handled by a U.S. Attorney’s Office. (The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia prosecutes violations under both federal and the District’s laws.) However, the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division also prosecutes criminal matters, as do the Antitrust, Civil Rights, Environment and Natural Resources, and Tax divisions, often in collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In each federal jurisdiction, there is an Office of the Federal Public Defender whose attorneys represent indigent defendants accused of federal crimes. In the military, Judge Advocate Corps attorneys prosecute courts-martial and criminal cases under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and also serve as defense counsel to service members in military courts.

  • What skills do I need to be a criminal lawyer?

    Lawyers who practice criminal law have a wide range of skills. Trial-level attorneys counsel their clients, research, write and argue motions, prepare and examine witnesses, and present their arguments to both juries and judges. At the appellate level, criminal lawyers will research and write legal briefs and present oral arguments to judges. Criminal lawyers benefit from strong interpersonal and trial skills and should be adept at managing emotionally volatile situations.
  • What kinds of jobs are available for criminal lawyers?

    There are two general categories of criminal lawyers: prosecutors and defense attorneys.  Defense attorneys that represent indigent clients work for the government or non-profit organizations as public defenders.  Criminal defense attorneys that represent paying clients may work for a small or large firm, or may have a solo practice.  Depending on the jurisdiction, prosecutors work for local, state, and federal government agencies. 

    It is not unusual for criminal lawyers to start their careers as either public defenders or prosecutors and then transition to private practice after they gain experience.

  • What courses should I take?

    Constitutional Criminal Procedure I & II • Federal Criminal Practice • Forensic Evidence • International Criminal Law: Courts, Crimes and Defenses • Juvenile Justice • Maryland Criminal Practice • Capital Punishment and the Constitution Seminar • Evidence • Issues in Law Enforcement Seminar • Rights of Crime Victims Seminar • Sentencing and Plea Bargaining Seminar • Wrongful Convictions Seminar • Appellate Advocacy Workshop • Bench Trial Advocacy • Interviewing, Negotiating & Counseling • Trial Advocacy • Criminal Practice Clinic • Attorney Practice externship[ involving criminal practice (approved by the director of the Attorney Practice Externship in consultation with Criminal Practice Concentration advisers) • Innocence Project Clinic I • Innocence Project Clinic II

  • What co-curricular and volunteer activities should I consider?

    Do an externship with the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Department of Justice or the Office of the Public Defender, especially if you want to become a prosecutor or an assistant public defender. The U.S. Attorney’s Office offers externship opportunities, but it does not hire entry-evel attorneys. A large number of law firms with criminal defense practices also hire law clerks. You could also prepare yourself for a career in criminal law by joining a Moot Court team, by participating in the Criminal Practice Clinic and/or by joining professional associations, such as the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association, and attending their events.

  • Who should I talk to at UB for more information?