BlogCareersWhat Does a Criminal Lawyer Do? | Roles, Skills, Advice

What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do? | Roles, Skills, Advice

Statue of justice, burden of proof, law theme

Maybe binge watching a season of Suits or tuning into Law & Order with the family has piqued your interest in becoming a criminal lawyer! However does the career really hold up with all the drama and glamour? 

We talk to Sherleen Chand to learn about what life is like as a criminal lawyer, so here’s your chance to learn about what sorts of responsibilities these lawyers have, how you can end up in this career and more.

Keen to find out more about the world of criminal law? Let’s get right into it!

Meet Sherleen
What is a Criminal Lawyer?
Steps to Becoming a Criminal Lawyer
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Criminal Lawyers

Meet Sherleen

Sherleen Chand has worked as a Criminal Defence Lawyer for the last five years — her wide expertise and experience on a variety of criminal cases include high profile cases dealing with indictable offences or have been reported on in the news. She has had cases that are heard in District Courts all the way up to the Supreme Court, or represented clients in the Children’s Court. 

Her outstanding work has led her to establish her own firm, Criminal Lawyers Sydney where she is the Principal Lawyer. 

Studies and Experience 

To become a criminal lawyer, you will first have to undertake a Bachelor of Laws and complete your practical legal training at the College of Law. Sherleen started off her career with a paid position in a general law firm.

Criminal law is considered a specialisation within the field of law, so landing a job with a criminal law firm immediately is hard. Sherleen gave up her paid position and volunteered at a criminal law firm to gain experience and connections, eventually leading her to paid employment at the same firm!  

Sherleen advises that if you are seeking a career in law, it is best to gain as much experience as possible — whether as a paralegal or clerk in law firm — even if it’s not the area of law you would like to go into as it provides you with work experience in the law industry. 

What made you want to work in this industry? 

“From when I was younger, I was actually bent on wanting to become a lawyer and I have no idea why. I think it’s just because I always watched movies,” Shereen laughs.

What is a Criminal Lawyer - Quote

What is a Criminal Lawyer?

Criminal lawyers work and defend individuals, organisations or entities that have been charged with a crime. They provide legal advice and representation, handling a wide variety of different kinds of cases.

Sherleen states that a lot of the work done is in courts, however she may be called by police officers to advise individuals who have been charged and explain their rights to them. 

Roles and Responsibilities

Sherleen describes being a criminal lawyer as a “24 hour type of service because you never know when a crime might happen. If a person is arrested in the early hours of the morning or late at night, we are on standby for legal advice for people who are arrested and taken into a police station. The police will contact lawyers that work after hours — and I’m one of them — and we will provide them with legal advice.” 

She continues saying, “The process can go on for hours because there’s a couple of procedures that the police have to go through. After that, we might have to go to court the very next day, depending on the type of charge, so we will go to Court on the weekend and try to get them out.” 

Besides representing and advising lawyers, criminal lawyers need to know how to build defences, argue appeals, advocate for their clients, research case law and statutes. In comparison to other sectors of law, criminal lawyers also spend more time in court. 

Additionally, it should also be noted that Sherleen is a lawyer who chose to work outside of the normal work hours too. If you are seeking a job that has regular work hours, a criminal lawyer is able to have that stability and schedule as well depending on how you establish your working hours. 

Which industries can this career be found in?

As a criminal lawyer, you will either be a criminal defence lawyer or working with the Director of Public Prosecution. Generally this role will only be in law and there are options to undertake cases on a pro bono basis, where lawyers are not paid for their service either usually because their client is of low socioeconomic status or you choose to do so for altruistic reasons. 

However, crime covers a range of different industries and sectors. From fraud to murder, it is highly likely that criminal lawyers will interact and deal with various different industries depending on the nature of the case they are working on! 

Common Misconceptions

When asked about common misconceptions regarding her career as a criminal defence lawyer, Sherleen immediately talked about how the public tend to view defence lawyers as helping criminals to get away with crime.

“When I landed the role of criminal prosecution, people said, ‘Oh so your morals are going to be aligned now,’ implying that as a criminal defence lawyer, we are letting criminals walk around. I’m not saying any crime is right, but every person has their own side of the story and of course there are certain crimes that are hard to forgive — but there are certain things that happen in a person’s upbringing or trauma they go through that lead them to commit a certain crime.

“There are also some people who are mentally ill and they don’t have control of what they’re doing. A common misconception is that we get told that we’re keeping all criminals out and when the public sees something on the news about crimes committed while a person is on bail, they’ll say, ‘What’s this lawyer doing representing them and helping them get back out into the community?’”

Sherleen states that as a criminal defence lawyer, she also gets to represent vulnerable people who have done wrong, saying, “There’s always a backstory for each client that the media won’t publish.” 

Additionally, we asked Sherleen what made her decide to be a criminal defence lawyer as opposed to a prosecutor.

She recounts a story saying, “I started off as a criminal defence lawyer and after a few years, I decided to try prosecution. I worked there for a week and I was like this is not for me and I went back to my previous employer. What I really enjoy about criminal defence is that you get your own cases, you start and finish them yourself so you are accountable for any mistakes you make. However, you are also rewarded if you excel in that case.” 

Sherleen then explains what being a prosecutor is like, “In criminal prosecution, everything is dictated for you. If you want to do a case a certain way, you need to get management approval so you don’t have a lot of say in your cases. Whereas with defence, I listen to clients and work on their instructions, but you prepare strategically and present in whatever way you want because the cases are yours.” 

Thus, if you are thinking of pursuing a career in criminal law, it might be worth considering the different culture and work style of prosecutors and defence lawyers when choosing which one you would prefer!

Characteristics and Qualities

What is a Criminal Lawyer - Characteristics

According to JobOutlook, the following skills are essential for a lawyer: 

  • Reading Comprehension
  • Speaking
  • Critical Thinking
  • Writing 
  • Active Listening

Sherleen also emphasises the importance of people skills as “everyday, you deal with clients. So you need to be a good listener, you need to listen to your clients and what they’re actually telling you. If you go to court, you need to present their case properly.”

Additionally, she talks about the importance of time management in law, but especially as a Criminal Lawyer when Courts often have strict deadlines of when documents need to be filed. “There are deadlines to be met. You have to file documents to court within a specific timeframe, so you need to be able to make that because if you don’t you can’t get in trouble and the case dismissed.” 

Steps to Becoming a Criminal Lawyer

Like any other law specialisation, becoming a criminal lawyer requires time, dedication and hard work. We’ll walk you through what you should study, how long it takes to end up in the role and what industry knowledge you should have.

What should you study?

To become a Criminal Lawyer, you would first have to gain a degree in law — whether that is a Bachelor of Laws or a postgraduate Juris Doctor.

If you choose to undertake a Bachelor of Laws, this would usually be studied as a double degree and take you around 5 years. A Juris Doctor (JD) is a postgrad option which takes around three years. 

Here are some universities that offer undergraduate law degrees you might want to consider:

Once you have gotten your university degree, you are required to complete Practical Legal Training before you can be admitted as a lawyer in Australia. After that, it’s about finding work in the Prosecutor’s Office or a Criminal Law Firm to kickstart your career as a criminal lawyer! 

How long does it take to become a Criminal Lawyer?

Overall, it would take about six years to become a lawyer. To specialise as a Criminal Lawyer would largely depend on how quickly you are able to find a job in this sector of law after completing all the required qualifications! 

Industry Knowledge

As a lawyer, you would have to be familiar with navigating legislation and databases for cases. Sherleen talks about a software called LEAP which helps lawyers to manage documents, accounting and billing and legal court forms.

However, it’s definitely something you can learn on the job and it is to help make case management and organisation easier for criminal lawyers! 

What will this career look like in the future?

The impact of COVID-19 has seen the courts close and court processes run online, Sherleen says, “Law never used to be like that. I was never online — not in my first five years.

“Even before that, people I’ve worked with who’ve been practising as criminal lawyers for 10, 20, 30 years have never actually appeared in court at home online. So since the pandemic, the court does give permission for people to appear through video calls.” 

Besides that, forms are also increasingly being done online where previously much of it was done manually. Sherleen says, “I know other law industries, like property and civil have online filing systems but criminal law never actually had, but it’s definitely heading towards that direction now.” 

How in-demand is this career? 

According to JobOutlook, lawyers continue to be in high demand and grow very strongly over the next five years. Crime and interaction with public authorities will always occur, from petty crime to more serious cases as long as society continues, crimes will occur and people will need representation or advice when faced with charges.

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise? 

While Criminal Law is already a specialisation, there are certainly areas that you can grow in. As a lawyer you can gain accreditation.

As Sherleen explains, “If you’ve gained experience in a particular area of law for a certain period of time, usually five years or more, you can go for accreditation. You’ll have to go through a course and an exam of what you’ve learnt in your area of law. Once you pass and get your accreditation, it just means you are formally specialised in your area of law.”

Sherleen adds with a small smile, “It also means that you can charge more, because you’re so specialised and not everybody has that particular accreditation, meaning you stand out from other criminal lawyers!” 

Salary 

Annual SalaryFuture GrowthSkill Level Rating
$85,000+Very strong over the next 5 yearsVery high skill

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy most about this job?

Sherleen says that work as a criminal lawyer is always dynamic and changing which is why she enjoys it.

Crime is really interesting because you get different charges, it’s always new things. Other areas of law are the same thing everyday — people buy property and it’s the same process everyday. When I worked in civil and general firms, you basically sit behind a computer and dealt with paperwork and you barely go to court. It’s always outside of court settlement.” 

By far, Sherleen’s favourite part of working as a criminal lawyer is being in the courtroom, she says, “Being able to represent a client and do client advocacy in a courtroom is probably the most enjoyable.

She laughs saying, “When I’m sitting inside the office, I get bored. Going to court is the most exciting part of the job.”

What do you feel is the worst part of this job?

As much as Sherleen loves working as a criminal lawyer, she does acknowledge that it can be hard at times. 

She says, “I wouldn’t say it’s the worst but it can be traumatic.” Sherleen shares that as a criminal lawyer, she has had clients confess to crimes that have led to confronting situations and talking to detectives. 

“All of these things happen behind the scenes. As a lawyer, we have to live with that. It’s part of the job, so if you’re a person that can’t handle situations like that; it’s not the job for you.”

Advice for Aspiring Criminal Lawyers

“Study hard in uni, that will open up a lot of paths for you. Whether it’s criminal defence or prosecution — everyone wants your transcript and it is used to assess what type of role you land. So if you have a good academic transcript it can give you a very good start,” Sherleen shares. 

However, while academic results are important, Sherleen also talks about the importance of networking. “Start building your network through LinkedIn or whatever it might be. Do some volunteer work, put yourself out there, make yourself known — by the time you become a lawyer, you’ve got that upper hand in terms of connections and networking.”

What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career? 

Sherleen says that if she could go back in time, she would have started working in a law firm much earlier.

“It’ll give you some exposure in the area of law you want. If you get into a law firm as early as possible it would definitely help and you will have a clearer idea of which area of law you might want to practise in. A lot of people think they want to be a criminal lawyer and they love the idea of it, but once you start working they can find it’s too stressful with the caseload.” 

“Definitely, to start looking at jobs in the legal industry, whether as a paralegal or clerk earlier so that I would have an idea of which area of law I would want to work in.”

Why should people consider taking on this career? 

Sherleen says that working as a criminal lawyer is really rewarding. “If you go into the right area of law, you’re going to love it. I love my job everyday. Like I speak to so many people and they hate their work and they don’t like getting up on Monday morning but for me, I like it.” 

Sherleen adds, “Once you start working as a lawyer, you go into law firms, see how the industry is and get experience. You see how rewarding it is — financially and mentally, whatever it might be. For me I ended up wanting to open my own firm and that’s something I did so here I am!”

Job Flexibility 

While Sherleen described being a Criminal Lawyer as a 24/7 kind of job she does make it clear that you can restrain it to normal work hours too.

For her, she says, “You might find yourself busy working overnight but the next morning there isn’t much to do. People don’t get arrested at every minute so you do get breaks or sometimes you’ll finish court really early and have no meetings so you get the rest of the day off. As busy as it can be, you do get a lot of time to yourself and your social life as well.” 

What is the workplace culture like? 

Unlike how we normally think of the legal industry, Sherleen says that the demographic is younger and more diverse now.

“There’s a lot of young lawyers. Back in the day, there was a lot of men dominating the law industry but things are changing now. There’s more women which is good to see. In law firms you get to see a lot more young lawyers and the environment is more young now, leading to a more multicultural mix so that’s pretty good.” 


Tiffany Fong is currently completing a double degree in Media and Communications with Law at Macquarie University. She currently contributes to the university zine, Grapeshot where she enjoys writing feature articles, commentary on current affairs or whatever weird interest that has taken over her mind during that month. During her spare time, Tiffany enjoys reading, writing, taking care of her plants or cuddling with her two dogs. 

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