The actual practice of criminal law is almost nothing like that depicted in shows like exposed to shows like The Good Wife, Law and Order or Boston Legal. In Australia, criminal law is primarily dealt with by the states, with only some crimes, such as those involving types of fraud or sexual misconduct, tried at a federal level. Accordingly, the states and territories have their own legislation to deal with criminal offences, such as the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) and the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Queensland).
Generally, criminal lawyers fall into two categories: those who defend accused people, and those who specialise in prosecution. Some barristers do appear for both sides, although it would be inadvisable for a graduate to go directly to the bar with a design on being a criminal lawyer. There are also some criminal lawyers who specialise in niche areas like victim representation or coronial inquests (on behalf of the State or persons of interest), which sometimes defy neat definition as “prosecution” or “defence”.
Defence lawyers are often involved with cases from an early stage. They confer with clients to obtain instructions, appear at court, and often need to be “on call”, since people are very often arrested outside office hours. Typically they will be in contact with the police and / or the prosecutor at some stage after the client is charged. Clients remanded in custody need to be visited and kept informed about their cases. This can be done face to face and by phone, although increasingly it is done via video link.
Prosecution lawyers become involved in cases at some stage after charge. They communicate with victims and witnesses, the investigating agency (typically the police), defence lawyers and others as the brief is compiled by the investigators in preparation for court.
Graduates in criminal law are closely supervised in all aspects of the job, but there are opportunities for early responsibility. Typically, they assist in the preparation of cases and help to run cases either in the Local Court or the District Court (and occasionally the Supreme Court).
The work for defence lawyers at this level usually involves a lot of client contact, for example visiting prisons and police stations, and attending conferences with counsel, or appearing in smaller matters either for procedural issues or for less serious matters.
The work for prosecution lawyers involves preparation of the prosecution brief for trials, liaising with witnesses about their appearance and their evidence, liaising with the Crown Prosecutor about what is required, as well as appearing in procedural court appearances and less serious matters.
Criminal law is one of the more resilient legal specialities, but it is not entirely recession proof, especially for defence lawyers in the private sector: clients obviously need to be able to pay. Additionally, when other areas of law are struggling it is common for lawyers from those areas to dabble in less serious criminal matters to make up their losses, leading to fewer matters overall for specialist private criminal defence lawyers.
In the public sector, Government funding tends to cycle through periods where either defence funding or prosecution (or sometimes both) funding is slashed – although funding for police tends to be very stable, meaning that workloads can spike significantly Job stability varies depending on the area of practice, and where in that cycle the funding is – during times of funding cuts, public sector employers tend to employ many employees on a contract basis, with no guarantees of renewal. During more stable periods, many of those employees may be transitioned to ongoing roles which have very good job stability.
Ultimately, your career prospects will be shaped by the role you pursue in criminal law, be it a defence lawyer for a private firm, or a prosecution lawyer for the state. However, the stability of the field as a whole should encourage those who hope to create long-term careers as criminal lawyers.
Learn more about working in criminal law.