The path to becoming a criminal lawyer in the UK is a journey that requires a steadfast commitment to justice. However,  it is a rewarding opportunity to make a difference in the world. This guide outlines the necessary steps to embark on this career path.

Learn how to become a solicitor in our guide.

What is a Criminal Lawyer?

A criminal lawyer in the UK is a legal professional specialising in the defence or prosecution of individuals, groups, or organisations charged with criminal conduct. The scope of their work ranges from minor offences to serious crimes like murder and fraud. The term “criminal lawyer” encompasses various legal roles, each dealing with criminal cases in different capacities. This includes both solicitors, who often handle the initial stages of a criminal case, and barristers, who represent clients in court. Criminal lawyers often need to provide advice to clients in person or over the telephone for less serious offences. Their clients are either privately or publicly funded through legal aid. Lawyers representing publicly funded clients must make arrangements for public funding.  The role involves significant preparation, research, and the ability to present complex legal arguments clearly and persuasively. Unlike commercial lawyers, criminal lawyers are involved in a high degree of client interaction rather than document drafting.

How to Become a Criminal Lawyer - Salaries Infographic

What is Criminal Law?

Criminal law is a field of law that deals with offences against a person or society. It defines the meaning and scope of criminal offences. It covers a broad range of illegal activities, from minor traffic violations to severe crimes such as murder and white-collar crimes. Certain crimes cover the hindrance of the administration of justice such as giving false evidence under oath. 

Criminal law is concerned with the criminalisation of unacceptable behaviour. It is an area of law that evolves broadly with societal values and ensures proper punishment for those who do not adhere to the rules. It is an exciting area of law as it is constantly changing, for example, the offence of non-fatal strangulation or suffocation has been recently introduced. Learn about the costs associated with becoming a lawyer.

How To Become a Criminal Lawyer in the UK

The path to becoming a criminal lawyer in the UK involves several key steps:

  1. Educational Foundation: Obtain an undergraduate law degree (LLB) accredited by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or the Bar Standards Board (BSB).
  2. Post-Law School Journey: For aspiring solicitors, enrol in the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Solicitor Qualifying Examination (SQE) preparation courses and pass SQE1 and SQE2. For those aiming to be barristers, the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is essential.
  3. Practical Experience: Gain hands-on experience through internships, placements, or vacation schemes in law firms or chambers.
  4. Training Contract and Pupillage: Secure a training contract for solicitors or pupillage for barristers. These periods are vital for skill development and specialisation. For those following the SQE qualification route, secure two years of QWE.
  5. Qualification (Solicitor/Barrister/ Prosecutor): Complete the training to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. Solicitors can practise immediately, while barristers undergo a “call to the bar” process. There is a special route for those wishing to qualify as prosecutors. The CPS offers pupillages for barristers and traineeships for solicitors to those who have completed their law degrees and LPC/BPC.  After a period of training through the CPS you are guaranteed a crown prosecutor role.
  6. Continuous Professional Development: Engage in ongoing education through seminars, workshops, and legal conferences to stay updated with the evolving laws and legal precedents.

Skills Required to Become a Criminal Lawyer

To succeed as a criminal lawyer in the UK, certain skills and traits are essential:

  • High academic and social intelligence: Ability to process large amounts of information and effectively communicate with a diverse range of people.
  • Empathy and an open mind: Dealing with clients accused of serious crimes requires a non-judgmental attitude and the ability to provide fair representation.
  • Thriving under pressure: The role can be demanding, with long hours and high stakes, necessitating strong stress management skills.
  • Adaptability and resilience: The legal field is dynamic, requiring lawyers to be flexible and resilient to changes.

Criminal Lawyer Salary

The average salary for a criminal lawyer in the UK is £45,000. The starting salary for a criminal lawyer is £20,000 and experienced lawyers earn upwards of £50,000. This varies based on location, experience, and field, for example, white-collar crime lawyer salaries can reach £160,000. 

  • London: Salaries range from £25,000 to £160,000
  • Birmingham: Salaries range from  £25,000 – £70,000
  • Bristol: Salaries range from £25,000 – £80,000 
  • Manchester: Salaries range from  £25,000 – £75,000 
  • Leeds: Salaries range from  £25,000 – £75,000 
  • Southampton: Salaries range from £25,000 – £65,000
  • Newcastle: Salaries range from  £25,000 – £55,000

Find out more about solicitor salaries.

What Do Criminal Lawyers Do?

Criminal lawyers play a crucial role in the legal system, encompassing a range of responsibilities depending on whether they are acting in defence or prosecution. Unsurprisingly, the role also involves making prison and police station visits.

Defence lawyers represent individuals accused of criminal conduct, ensuring their right to a fair trial and challenging the evidence presented by the prosecution. Their involvement begins at the start of the police investigation such as requesting initial information about the case from police officers and formulating advice to clients at the police interview. They liaise with clients, review evidence, and represent their clients in court.

Prosecution lawyers, on the other hand, work on behalf of the state. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is a primary body in this role in England and Wales, responsible for bringing criminal cases to court. These lawyers review evidence, decide whether to charge an individual with a crime and present the case in court. In carrying out their duties, prosecutors must remain objective, fair, and independent.

How to Get Criminal Law Work Experience?

Gaining practical experience is a critical step in becoming a criminal lawyer. The steps will vary based on personal goals. Aspiring barristers should focus on securing mini-pupillages, whereas those wishing to become solicitors should apply to vacation schemes. Here are some ways to acquire this experience:

  • Open Days: Attend open days at criminal law firms. The application process is similar to that of a vacation scheme. 
  • Vacation Schemes: Week-long or fortnight-long work experience placements within a criminal law firm.
  • Mini-pupillages: Short-term work placements, shadowing a barrister.
  • Marshalling: Shadowing a fully qualified judge to gain insights into the judicial process.
  • Pro-Bono Work: Volunteering at legal clinics by offering free legal advice to those unable to secure it through other means.
  • Participation in Debating or Mooting: Cultivating skills relevant to law and enhancing a trainee’s application for work experience.
  • Court Visits: Attend hearings open to the public e.g. at the Magistrates’ Court to gain a good idea of the criminal trial process.
  • Networking: Attend events targeted at aspiring solicitors or barristers to learn more about the profession and create a network of connections.

Find out how to get more law work experience and stay up-to-date with vacation scheme deadlines.

Types of Criminal Lawyers

Criminal lawyers in the UK can specialise in various fields, shaping their careers based on interests and strengths. It is common to associate criminal lawyers with professionals who handle assault and murder cases, however, it is possible to specialise in some more niche areas of criminal law. A less-known example would be dealing with cases concerning FCA investigations. Some types of criminal lawyers are: 

  • General Crime Lawyers: Handle a wide range of criminal cases, from minor offences to serious crimes.
  • White-Collar Crime Specialists: Focus on financial crimes like fraud and embezzlement.
  • Public Prosecutors: Work for agencies like the CPS, prosecuting criminal cases on behalf of the state.
  • Legal Aid Lawyers: Represent clients who cannot afford private legal representation.
  • Criminal Defense Barristers: Specialise in representing clients in court, and presenting evidence and arguments.
  • Forensic Lawyers: Use scientific methods and knowledge in legal cases, often involved in gathering and analysing evidence.
  • Criminal Duty Solicitors: They assist detainees at the police station and the first court hearing. They are usually funded by legal aid and their services are pro-bono, providing access to individuals who are entitled to legal representation but may not otherwise have access to it

Frequently Asked Questions

Below you will find answers to the most commonly asked questions:

What are the typical working hours and work-life balance for criminal lawyers in the UK?

The working hours for criminal lawyers in the UK can be quite demanding, often extending beyond the typical 9-to-5 workday. This is especially true as Criminal Duty solicitors may expect to receive a call at any hour to assist detainees. Long hours and weekend work might be necessary when preparing for court cases or during trials. However, the intensity of the work schedule can vary depending on the employer, and the complexity of the cases handled. Balancing work and personal life in this career can be challenging, and it requires strong time and stress management skills.

What are the opportunities for career advancement and progression for criminal lawyers?

Criminal lawyers have different career paths they can follow to advance in their profession. As they gain more experience, they can move up within their firms or chambers, working on more complex cases or leading teams. Some may decide to specialise further, for example, in white-collar crime or international criminal law, which can lead to more high-profile cases and potentially higher earnings. Moreover, criminal lawyers can also become judges or legal scholars, particularly after gaining substantial experience in the field. Consistent professional development and networking are essential components for career advancement in this dynamic and competitive field.

How does the role of a criminal lawyer in the UK differ from that in other countries?

The role of criminal lawyers in the UK is notably distinct from their counterparts in other countries, largely due to differences in legal systems. The UK’s legal system is split between solicitors and barristers, which is a structure not commonly found elsewhere. In countries like the United States, a lawyer typically handles both the advisory and advocacy roles. Moreover, the UK’s common law system influences the approach to legal procedures and case law, differing from civil law systems found in many European countries. International laws and treaties also play a role in shaping criminal law practice in different regions, making the practice of criminal law quite diverse globally. learn all about key differences between UK and US lawyers.