What Do Criminal Justice Lawyers Do?

What do Criminal Justice Lawyers Do?

Many people are aware that lawyers are an essential part of the criminal justice system, but you may not know what criminal justice lawyers do. Or you may even wonder, “What does the average workday of a criminal justice lawyer look like?” What do criminal justice lawyers do?

Criminal justice lawyers are professionals who either represent the state or a criminal defendant. They spend most of their time researching, fact-finding, and analyzing previous cases to construct a persuasive case for the side that they are representing. Lawyers in the criminal justice system can work as either prosecutors or criminal defense lawyers. Criminal justice lawyers complete three years of law school, and have to pass the state bar in the area they are practicing to become licensed.

Are you an aspiring criminal justice lawyer? Or maybe you need a criminal lawyer and would like to know more about the work they do. Read on to learn more about criminal prosecutors, criminal defenders, education and experience, areas of practice, and a criminal justice lawyer’s salary.

What is a Criminal Prosecutor’s Role?

The prosecutor is the criminal justice lawyer who brings the charges against the defendant. During a trial, they represent the government, whether it be federal, state, or local. A prosecuting attorney bears the burden of proof meaning, convincing the jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. To meet the burden of proof, they gather evidence against the defendant including; testimonies, physical evidence, scientific evidence, and circumstantial evidence.

Prosecuting attorneys play different roles starting with the initial arrest for a crime. The District Attorney is the first prosecutor that is involved in a case. They are the chief prosecutor in an area and represent either a county, state, or even the federal government. When an arrest is made the District Attorney’s Office receives all the available evidence on the case, which is initially very little. Once they receive all the evidence they can determine whether they can charge the accused with a crime. The District Attorney is also the one to decide what crime to charge the accused of and how high their bail will be. 

After Charges are Made

After the District Attorney charges the accused with a crime, the case is handed to a prosecutor (city, county, or state). The prosecutor prepares the case for trial by reviewing all of the evidence and interviewing witnesses. Their goal is to create a solid case as to why the defendant is guilty. Then, they have to present their case to a judge during a preliminary hearing, where it is determined whether or not there is enough evidence to go to trial. Next, there is the formal charging of the defendant where they plea guilty or not guilty. During the formal charging, the prosecutor’s only role is to present the charges to the judge.

However, many cases are resolved with plea deals before there’s even a trial. A plea is when the defendant pleads guilty to receive a lesser charge and less jail time. If a plea deal can’t be reached, then the prosecutor must prepare the case for a full trial. On trial, the prosecutor works to convince the court that the defendant deserves more severe sentencing than the defense is letting on.

How do Criminal Defense Lawyers Differ from Prosecutors?

Criminal defense lawyers fight for the person accused of a crime and build a case that breaks down the prosecution’s argument. Depending on what they can afford, the accused can either have a lawyer appointed by the government or hire a private defender. Once assigned to a case, a defender interviews their client to gather details and build a strong defense. 

Criminal defense lawyers help their clients throughout the entire criminal justice process, making them a crucial asset to the accused. If a suspect has reason to believe that they will be charged with a crime they will often hire a defense lawyer as soon as possible. Their defender will then accompany them during police questioning to ensure that they will not reveal any information that could incriminate them. In some cases, the defense lawyer can even work to convince the court to drop the charges against their client due to lack of evidence or law enforcement misconduct. 

A defender’s main role during a trial is to refute the prosecution’s case. To do this, they first gather as much evidence as possible by reviewing police reports for possible misconduct, questioning witnesses, and finding information on the case. They also cross-examine the evidence that the prosecutor has brought forward and find weaknesses in their case. Then they analyze their evidence to create a strong defense that will convince the jury that the prosecution was not able to meet the burden of proof.

How to become a Criminal Justice Lawyer?

How to become a Criminal Justice Lawyer

Anyone can become a criminal justice lawyer however if you’re pursuing this career path you have to be willing to commit years of your life to study law. On top of that, you must also consider the various tests required to be admitted into a law school and receive a license to practice law.

Get your Bachelor’s Degree

Before admission into law school, you have to receive your bachelor’s degree in any field. As long as you can excel in the major that you choose, ensuring that you have a fighting chance for admission into a top law school.

Typically, the Law School Admission Test or LSAT is taken after your junior year of undergrad. The LSAT is one of the most critical factors in law school admissions. It allows law schools to measure the applicant’s skills in areas essential to lawyers including reading, writing, analysis, reasoning, and argumentation.

Apply to Law Schools

Based on your undergrad GPA and LSAT performance, you can begin applying to law schools that admit students with GPAs and scores similar to yours. GPA and LSAT scores aren’t the only factors that admissions take into account. Applicants can boost their chance of admission by engaging in community service activities, receiving letters of recommendation, and completing internships in the field of law. 

Work on your JD

Once admitted, you can then work to earn your Juris Doctor Degree or JD. During the law program, you can choose your area of specialization. If you are striving to become a criminal justice lawyer, you should specialize in criminal law. A JD is earned after three years of intense studying then, you can prepare for the bar exam.

Pass the Bar Exam

Law school graduates must take the state bar exam in the state that they wish to practice. In most states, the bar exam requires two days of testing. Day one consists of the multistate bar examination that consists of multiple-choice questions covering a broad array of law aspects. Day two is an intensive writing examination of different legal subjects. You can officially practice law once you pass the bar exam.

Where can Criminal Justice Lawyers Practice?

Criminal defenders may choose to either work in the public or private sector, while all prosecutors work in the public sector. Both sectors have their own sets of pros and cons that defenders have to consider when choosing where to work. The two differ in workload, pay, and client base. 

The Public Sector

A public attorney is a lawyer that works for the government, whether they are a public defender or a prosecutor. Public defenders are appointed by the government to people who cannot afford to hire a private defender. Whereas, a prosecutor represents the state in criminal cases. When choosing to become a public attorney, one must take a few things into account such as pay and workload. Lawyers in the public sector often have a much greater caseload than those who work in the private sector. They often work up to one hundred cases at any given time. They work long and stressful hours and are not paid overtime on top of that, they are among the lowest-paid lawyers.

Despite the cons, there are many pros to working in the public sector. For example, lawyers often start their careers in the public sector, allowing them to gain valuable experience when applying to work at a private firm later on. Another pro is that public defenders often make a difference in the lives of those who are at rock bottom. Public defenders get to protect our constitutional rights in every case that they work, and public prosecutors ensure that those who harmed someone are penalized for their crimes.

The Private Sector

Private criminal attorneys are paid and chosen by the individual rather than the government. They often have a smaller caseload, higher salary, and more experience than those in the public sector. As a private defender, you can dedicate more one-on-one time with your clients, ensuring that each is satisfied. They also have more resources at their disposal, they can hire expert witnesses, private labs, and private labs to help with cases. Private lawyers enjoy a much higher salary because they are paid by a firm rather than the government. However, pay varies a lot based on how well they perform in cases, if they do not leave their customers satisfied they can expect a lower salary. 

What is the Salary of a Criminal Justice Lawyer?

Criminal justice lawyers are not paid as well as civil lawyers, on average they can expect to earn a salary of under $100,000. However, their salary depends on their skills, experience level, education, and whether they work in the public or private sector. 

Public defenders are the lowest paid of the criminal justice lawyers, with an average salary of only $60,000 compared to a private defender’s average salary of $80,000. In the early stages of their career, public defenders usually earn about $40,000 a year. While private defenders can expect to earn $60,000. After 20 years of experience, public defenders still earn under $80,000 and private defenders make over $100,000. If you are looking for a higher salary as a defender, your best option is to work for a private firm.

A prosecuting attorney’s average salary differs from what a defender makes, their pay falls in between a public defender and a private defender. On average, a prosecutor can expect to earn about $70,000 a year. When a prosecutor is just starting, they make an average of $55,000. Which is higher than a public defender’s pay even though both work for the government. Late career prosecutors earn around $100,000, $20,000 more than the average public defender will earn late-career and the same as private defenders.


Criminal justice lawyers are needed for the criminal justice system to function, they are the ones that determine how a criminal is charged and what their sentence will be. Without them, the system would quickly become corrupt because there would be no one to defend the rights of the accused or ensure that criminals get punished. 

The job of a criminal justice lawyer is engaging and rewarding work albeit, stressful and mentally taxing. They work long restless hours, to ensure that justice is maintained within the system and that no one is left defenseless. 

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