Criminal Lawyer Schooling and College Degree Program Information

Students looking to become criminal lawyers could enroll in either a Juris Doctor program (J.D.) or a Master of Laws with a focus on criminal law (LL.M.).

Essential Information

Students who want to prepare to become criminal lawyers could enroll in one of the following advanced degree programs. A Juris Doctor program (varied time length) might feature a combination option in criminal justice that covers criminal law. This program combines mock trials and hands-on training with classroom lectures. In addition to having a bachelor's degree, applicants to J.D. degree programs must submit their Law School Admissions Test scores.

The Master of Laws in Criminal Law program (1-6 years) allows students to learn about international tax and property laws as well as criminal law as it is practiced in this country. Along with professional legal experience, a J.D. degree is required for admission to a Master of Laws program.

Juris Doctor Degree Program with Criminal Justice Studies

A J.D. degree program will not typically offer a criminal law concentration option, but students can study criminal justice alongside a J.D. program through a combination option such as a J.D./M.S. in Criminal Justice or J.D./M.A. in Criminal Justice. Many schools provide students with real-world experience working with actual clients through legal clinics and can also allow students to participate in mock-trials. Additionally, students may be encouraged to write and edit articles for law review publications.

Law students typically spend their first year learning about universal U.S. law concepts dealing with torts, civil procedure, contracts, constitutional rights and criminal procedure. Students interested in becoming criminal lawyers can take classes on the following topics:

  • Criminal justice statistics
  • Criminology
  • Administration of justice
  • Crime and criminal behavior
  • Race, ethnicity and justice
  • Crime scene investigation

Master of Laws in Criminal Law

Practicing lawyers seeking specialization in criminal law can pursue an LL.M. in Criminal Law degree. Programs can include the study of U.S. criminal law, as well as international law topics.

Students can gain a global perspective on laws with extensive curriculum that focuses on legal matters for everything from antiquities to the Internet. Typical course topics may be:

  • Criminal appeals clinic
  • White-collar offenses
  • International tax law
  • Counter-terrorism law and policy
  • Corrections and sentencing
  • Post-conviction remedies

Popular Career Choices

After graduating, licensing and other state, and possibly federal, requirements have been met, a criminal lawyer may find employment in many settings. Many lawyers will work for:

  • Government agencies
  • Law firms
  • Law schools
  • Non-profit legal aid organizations
  • Police departments

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that job growth for lawyers in general was projected to increase at a rate of 6% between 2014 and 2024 ( However, job competition among attorneys is expected to be fierce due to the number of law school graduates; those who earned exceptional marks from top-rated schools may have an employment advantage. The number of criminal law cases is also expected to increase because of population growth, providing those with a background in criminal law an edge as well. The median annual salary for lawyers was $115,820 in May 2015.

Continuing Education and Licensure Information

Attorneys must be admitted to the bar in the state or jurisdiction in which they wish to practice. To be licensed, or admitted to the jurisdiction's bar, a written bar exam and, in most cases, an ethics exam must be successfully completed. If a lawyer wants to work in any other states, or moves to a different state, the bar exam must be passed for those states as well. Additionally, applicants must normally have studied at a school of law that has been accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) to take the exam. The qualifications to work for a federal court or agency may also include extra requirements or testing.

As of 2008, 48 states require practicing lawyers take continuing education courses throughout their careers in order to continue working. These courses can normally be found at law schools or local bar associations, and some states allow attorneys to attend online seminars.

Students with an interest in criminal law can seek Juris Doctor programs or Master of Laws programs with a criminal law focus. These programs incorporate formal instruction with experiential learning such as mock trials. Before going into practice, attorneys must attain state licensure by passing the bar exam, and in some cases an ethics exam.

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