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Legal Field Trips: Criminal Law


Last week we kicked off a new series of posts covering various fields of the law. We started off in Wall Street, with a quick primer on securities law. This week, we’re going to move on to discuss criminal law.

I’m sure everyone reading this has watched Perry Mason, Law & Order, or some other criminal justice procedural. I’m going to avoid retreading the commonly understood elements of criminal law — the juries, the trials, etc. Rather, I’m going to draw from my (brief) tenures as an intern at a state public defender’s office and at a U.S. Attorney’s office to help give you a more realistic perspective of criminal law in real life.

Let’s start at the state level. I think the best description of life as a public defender or district attorney is hectic. Invariably, state criminal law practitioners are up to their ears in cases. The bulk of these cases will never go to trial, as the parties will negotiate pleas. District attorneys in New York that I’ve spoken to average a couple trials per year, and they’re usually relatively short. A large chunk of time is spent at arraignments and other pretrial hearings. On the defense side, attorneys try to spend time with each of their many clients to get a sense of the pleas they’ll choose to accept or the strategies they want to put forward. All in all, you probably won’t get very many “Perry Mason moments” of courtroom drama if you choose to go into state level criminal work, but you will definitely spend a lot of time arguing for or against Fourth Amendment motions to suppress.

Life in the world of federal crime is a little different, but there are many similarities. The vast majority of cases involve immigration offenses, which are federal crimes. Apart from that, most of the defendants are up on drug charges. There are also white collar criminal offenses, the criminal analogue to the securities fraud we discussed last time, and violent crimes, among others. As at the state level, the bulk of these cases plead out. Federal criminal attorneys spend a lot of time at proffer sessions, interviewing cooperating witnesses, and otherwise building their cases. The key difference between federal and state level criminal work is federal prosecutor’s ability to exercise discretion in choosing the cases they bring. State prosecutors have to prosecute every criminal offense that comes across their desk, whereas federal prosecutors can choose how to allocate their resources. As a result, the caseload, while still large, is less onerous than at the state level.

At the end of the day, criminal work is the best way to be a “real lawyer,” who actually argues cases to a jury. But going to trial is definitely not the norm, and most of the work is done behind the scenes negotiating deals. Most criminal lawyers feel passionately that they are helping effectuate justice, either by putting away bad guys or by checking the government’s ability to incarcerate the citizenry. Ultimately, it can be a very rewarding job, albeit one with ethical and moral dilemmas that do not accompany the work of closing a corporate deal or putting together a memorandum on zoning restrictions or insurance coverage.