How to Become a Criminal Justice Lawyer

Last Updated: October 6, 2021

Criminal law continues to be an attractive career choice for many individuals.  While the courtroom may seem exciting, prospective lawyers need to study for several years and go through several steps before they are even called to the Bar. Let’s go through some of the requirements for becoming a criminal justice lawyer.

Complete an undergraduate degree

Regardless of which field of law you want to specialize in, you need to complete a bachelor’s degree. You can enroll in a pre-law program but this by no means mandatory. The American Bar Association (ABA) doesn’t specify which program you must study. Many law school applicants have undergraduate degrees in economics, political science, business or journalism. However, if don’t already have a degree, the ABA suggests a program which is broad in nature. It should give you a solid grounding in problem-solving, analysis, speaking, writing, time management, listening comprehension, and related areas. Try to get the highest GPA possible.


Pass the LSAT

All prospective lawyers also need to pass the Law School Admission Test. Admissions officers will use your score to measure your knowledge against that of all the other applicants. The exam includes multiple choice questions and a section which requires a writing sample. You will be tested in areas like reading comprehension, critical thinking, argumentation, reasoning, and information management. These are all skills you will need as an attorney.

Apply to law school

Some people apply to law school immediately after completing their bachelor’s degree while others gain a year or two of professional experience first. Getting some on-the-job experience may increase your chances of getting into the school of your choice. Competition is high among the top law schools, so admissions officers will look at more than your LSAT scores and undergraduate GPA. Community service, professional affiliations and leadership experience can go a long way in separating you from other applicants. Recommendations from educators or people in the legal profession can also help. Remember to only apply to schools which are accredited by the ABA.

Earn a Juris Doctor degree

In order to take your state’s bar examination, you need to earn your Juris Doctor (JD) degree. This is a professional degree which helps to prepare you for the bar exam. The ABA has approved 204 law schools and it usually takes about three years to complete this program if you study full-time. Your first year is usually dedicated to an overview of the modern legal system and an introduction to many of the topics you will cover over the next two years. After your first year, you should choose classes which support the field of law you ultimately want to pursue. Prospective criminal justice lawyers will need to consider criminal procedures, national security law, and white-collar crime, among other areas.


Pass the state’s bar examination

Most states will require you to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam before you are qualified to practice law. Many law school graduates take three to six months to prepare for the test. The testing varies among states but it tends to be a two-day event. The first day is for completing the Multistate Bar Examination while the second day is for examinations on various legal topics. Before you gain your license to practice, the state board also looks at your educational background, character, competence, and ability to represent others.


Build your criminal justice law career

Newly-licensed lawyers tend to start out as associates who work closely with experienced attorneys. If you want to be a criminal justice attorney, you will want to work in a law firm with other criminal justice attorneys so you can learn on the job and develop your skills. After several years, some attorneys become partners in the firm while others open their own offices. Some enter public office or pursue further education. The Master of Law (LLM) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) are common routes to academia and research.

As you can see, becoming a lawyer takes several years of study and a lot of dedication and commitment. The journey to the courtroom may seem long and confusing but it is important to take one step at a time. Each stage of your educational journey will build on the one before it so there is no need to feel overwhelmed.

Liz S. Coyle is the Director of Client Services for JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law. She also serves as a paralegal for the Family Law Department. She is responsible for internal and external communications for the firm.

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