Breaking into the Field of Criminal Law

While I really should be studying for the bar exam right now, I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to share a great article appearing in the current issue of Canadian Lawyer 4Students Magazine.

The article, entitled “So You Wanna Be a Criminal Lawyer, Eh?” is about the challenges facing current law students who plan to practice in criminal law. There is a particular focus on the lack of articling opportunities in the field, and the ever-decreasing emphasis on criminal law education at law schools. I can tell you first hand that these issues are very real and very troubling.

The author quotes my former Career Services Director, Robyn Martilla, on the difficulties in finding employment opportunities in criminal law:

It is also possible students are not so much turned off the practice area’s dark side, but instead diverted from it by large firms’ powerful recruitment strategies. Robyn Martilla, director of Western Faculty of Law’s career and professional development office, says it’s difficult for students to find information on criminal law articling positions. “The schools tend to get a lot of information from private firms, like the large Bay Street group,” says Martilla. “So that information is easily available to students. But it’s much more difficult to find information about positions in either family or criminal law.”

There is a choice quotation from Montreal criminal lawyer Isabel Schurman on what we stand to lose as our criminal defence bar shrinks and ages:

She suggests this much-maligned area of practice has been given a bad rap over the years, and more students should open their eyes to a career in criminal defence. “It’s a shame that the field is so misunderstood,” says Schurman. “I think it’s a shame that people never realize the important role that defence counsel play until they, or someone in their family, needs representation, and then realize that it’s not simply this television or movie image of defence counsel. We are in fact the watchdogs for the fairness in our system of criminal justice, and without a strong defence bar, the whole system suffers, and so does the citizen’s right to be left alone by the state.”

The article concludes with some practical tips on breaking into the field, many of which I can endorse from personal experience. If you’re considering criminal law, I recommend checking the article out here.

The criminal lawyers I know tell me that although the challenges are many, they are more than offset by the rewards of practicing in this exciting field. This was summarized in one of my favorite admonitions from a criminal defence lawyer: “trust me, you don’t want to practice criminal law. That being said, I absolutely love my job, and can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”

About the Author

Lawrence Gridin
Lawrence Gridin is currently a law student at the University of Western Ontario, graduating in the class of 2010. He completed his Bachelor of Science at the University of Toronto, majoring in Psychology and History. Lawrence volunteers at Western's Community Legal Services and has participated in the clinic's outreach program. His diverse interests include social justice, 20th century history, photography, boxing, and politics.

4 Comments on "Breaking into the Field of Criminal Law"

  1. Great article. Thank you!

  2. Hey Simon: You’ve got an even bigger challenge… you’ll have to stop thinking like a cop and start thinking like a lawyer. Once you’ve done that, though, you’ll have a huge advantage in finding an articling position. You’ll definitely be a great asset to the bar. I am very much looking forward to people like you entering the profession!

  3. For clarification, I’m certain Lawrence means that in the best of ways.

    We’ve seen a few former police officers going to law school, and they do much better in the field when they are able to let go of their training a little bit.

    But your background and experience in law enforcement will be invaluable.

  4. What Lawrence and Omar said in spot on. That was probably one if not the biggest adjustment for me entering law school. Let me reiterate it. LEAVE THE COP AT THE DOOR!

    Policing, once you get good at it, is pretty cut and dry. Law, not so much.

    The police officer can see somebody punch another person and know it was an assault, out comes the cuffs and some paperwork, and the officer’s involvement is done. But the lawyer has to know the actus reus, mens rea, possible defences, and the case law before heading off to trial.

    I recall an interesting conversation I had with my 1L Constitutional Law Prof. I told her at the beginning of the term that I wasn’t sure how I was going to do in this course because I did not think that many of the cases had application to the “real world.” Although I still believe that to a certain extent… the cases we did cover definitely moved me from a pretty firm stand.

    I think that was one of the things I enjoyed most about first year. Having my (fairly entrenched) views challenged. I’m pretty firm on what I believe, and for the first time in a long time, some of the foundations for those beliefs swayed.

    Looking forward to next year!

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