Criminal Litigation

Career Path Introduction

Criminal litigation refers to the process of trying a criminal defendant in a court of law. Criminal litigators come in two varieties: criminal prosecutors, who present the government's case against the defendant, and criminal defense attorneys, who represent the interests of the defendant.

Criminal prosecutors practice at either the state level or the federal level, while criminal defense attorneys generally maintain private practices or work as public defenders for the state or federal government.

Whether prosecutors or defense attorneys, criminal lawyers handle a wide variety of cases, from white-collar crime, violent crimes, sex crimes and drug trafficking to DUI, traffic offenses and misdemeanors. Some concentrate on white-collar crime such as fraud, embezzlement and insider trading. Others concentrate on criminal appeals or on capital defense, in which defendants are prosecuted for crimes punishable by the death penalty.

Criminal prosecutors can be found in the offices of state's attorneys, state attorneys general, and the U.S. Attorney General as well as in state and federal agencies such as Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Agency. They can also be found in the U.S. military, where trials are prosecuted and defendants represented by attorneys for the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Defense lawyers can be found in solo private practices and in small to large law firms as well as in the offices of state public defenders, state appellate public defenders, and the Federal Public Defender. Clients can range from individuals charged with crimes to a wide variety of organizations, including corporations, financial institutions and government entities.

In a typical day, criminal litigators may draft, file and argue motions; argue cases at the trial level before judges and juries; or argue conviction appeals. They may investigate the facts of cases or interview witnesses. They may meet with clients, research relevant law, or develop prosecution or defense strategies. Prosecutors may decide whether to bring charges after police investigations are complete, while defense attorneys may negotiate for lower bail or plea-bargain to lesser charges to avoid trial.

Criminal lawyers benefit from strong legal writing and research skills as well as outstanding oral advocacy skills. During law school, criminal litigation students can gain valuable experience as externs with prosecutors' and public defenders' offices and as judicial clerks with trial and appellate judges at both the state and federal levels. Many also compete on their law schools' interscholastic trial and appellate advocacy teams.

Related Chicago-Kent offerings:


Chicago-Kent offers a J.D. Certificate in Criminal Litigation and numerous experiential learning opportunities for students who are interested in careers as prosecutors or criminal defense attorneys.

>> Learn about the certificate program curriculum and requirements.

>> View J.D. courses relating to criminal litigation.

Related: Chicago-Kent also offers an LL.M. in Trial Advocacy for International Students.

>> Visit the J.D. Certificate Program in Criminal Litigation faculty page to learn about Chicago-Kent faculty who teach courses relating to criminal law and litigation skills.

Academic Centers and Institutes

The Justice John Paul Stevens Jury Center is a website that serves as a clearinghouse for information about the jury to academics, students, judges, lawyers and members of the press and public.

Student Organizations

The Criminal Law Society of Chicago-Kent is committed to building awareness of criminal law issues and providing opportunities to engage with other students and professionals interested in criminal law through speaker events, panel discussions, networking functions, and other interactions with society members and practitioners within the field.

The Federal Bar Association Chicago-Kent Law Student Division supports the interests and needs of Chicago-Kent law students aspiring to federal practice, both public and private, and seeks to strengthen student interest and knowledge of the federal legal system.