Best Criminal Law Programs: List of Top Schools

Jan 10, 2020

Learn about three top law schools with specialized criminal law programs. Find out about school rankings and clinical education opportunities for law students so that you can compare programs and make an informed decision.

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School Information

Aspiring criminal lawyers can take focused courses on this topic on the way to earning a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. They may also participate in criminal law clinics that provide real-world training in the field. Three highly ranked law schools - Harvard University, Stanford University, and Cornell University - have some of the best criminal law programs in the United States. These universities offer Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree programs and clinical education opportunities. Two of the schools also have criminal justice centers for in-depth study of criminal law, and they were all highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report for 2019.

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Famous alumni of Harvard Law School include President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Harvard Law School is the third-best law school in the United States on U.S. News & World Report's 2019 ranking. Harvard Law's Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) is one of seven study programs that law students can follow. CJI courses cover litigation, policy making and research, sociology of crime and punishment, public policy, and criminal justice reform in global contexts. Third-year students can participate in clinical education, through which they handle real-life cases under the supervision of law professors. As part of these clinics, CJI students go into local courts and represent adults and juveniles accused of crimes, including misdemeanors and felonies. Criminal justice-related law clinics at Harvard include those in criminal prosecution, death penalty, war crimes prosecution, and government lawyer as prosecutor.

Stanford University in California

Stanford University hosts the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Stanford Three Strikes Project, the only one of its kind in the nation. In 2019, Stanford Law School is ranked as the 2nd-best law school in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. First-year J.D. students complete the standard law school curriculum in criminal law, contracts, legal research, and constitutional law. During the second and third years of study, students interested in criminal law can take coursework at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center in adjudication, investigation, juvenile crime, sentencing and correction, mass incarceration, and white collar crime. Law students can practice their legal skills at the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford, which offers students eleven clinics on select areas of law. These include clinics on criminal prosecution, immigrant rights, life-sentenced criminals, and Supreme Court litigation.

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

Cornell Law School hosts more than a dozen clinics, including the Criminal Defense Clinic and the Prosecution Clinic. Cornell Law School is ranked #13 among all law schools in the country for 2019 by U.S. News & World Report. The school offers a criminal defense trial clinic in which law students get experience defending individuals charged with crimes in local courts. Students' duties include client interviews, witness preparation, case research, negotiations with the district attorney's office, and court appearances. In addition to this hands-on training, students also take a class that includes lecture, discussion, and court simulations.

Top Criminal Law Schools

In addition to Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell, several other respected schools offer programs in criminal law:

College/University Name Location Distinction
University of California - Berkeley Berkeley, CA Home to the Death Penalty Clinic
University of California - Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA First school to host a national moot court competition focused on cyber crimes
University of Chicago Chicago, IL The Law School hosts the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, MI Hosts more than a dozen clinics and professional learning opportunities, including the Civil-Criminal Litigation Clinic, Criminal Appellate Practice, and the Michigan Innocence Clinic
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA The law school houses the Criminal Law Research Group
University of Texas at Austin Austin, TX The Criminal Defense Clinic allows students to gain experience as 'first chair' attorneys under supervision
University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA Practical learning is available through the Criminal Defense Clinic, the Innocence Project Clinic, and the Prosecution Clinic

For law students who want to focus on criminal law, some of the highest-ranked law schools in the country provide both theoretical coursework and hands-on training through law clinics.

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