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How To Become a Criminal Justice Lawyer

Many careers are available within the legal field. There are many specialties lawyers can practice, such as criminal justice. Understanding how to become a criminal justice lawyer can help you determine if this legal specialty is the right fit for you. In this article, we explain what a criminal justice lawyer is, discuss common responsibilities, examine how to become a criminal just lawyer and review salary and job outlook information for this role.

What is a criminal justice lawyer?

A criminal justice lawyer is a legal professional who specializes in criminal justice counsel and defense. These professionals represent either the state they practice in or criminal defendants during their time in the criminal justice system. These professionals employ a variety of skills when representing and defending their clients, such as:

  • Critical thinking

  • Public speaking

  • Interpersonal skills

  • Written communication abilities

What does a criminal justice lawyer do?

Criminal justice lawyers’ duties vary based on who they represent. There are some similar duties these lawyers perform, regardless of whether they represent a defendant or the state. Some duties these professionals complete regularly, include:

  • Researching case details

  • Analyzing probable case outcomes

  • Interpreting laws for defendants

  • Presenting evidence to a judge or jury

  • Preparing legal documents

  • Negotiating plea settlement

Work environment for criminal justice lawyers

Criminal justice lawyers often work in office settings with extended periods of sitting. These professionals also meet defendants in courthouses, prisons, hospitals or other locations. They frequently work irregular hours because of defendant meetings, case research or other factors. If a lawyer represents individuals in multiple locations or states, they might also frequently travel by vehicle, train or aircraft to meet their clients.

How to become a criminal justice lawyer

Review these steps to help you understand more about becoming a criminal justice lawyer:

1. Complete secondary education

Many legal professionals complete a bachelor’s program to start their legal careers. Reflecting on your career goals can help you select a bachelor’s program that aligns with your aspirations. Some programs to consider include:

  • Political science

  • Psychology

  • Criminal justice

  • English

  • History

  • Economics

  • Philosophy

  • Sociology

2. Attend law school

Upon graduation, continue your education by attending law school. Law programs teach students about foundational legal concepts. Common subjects covered during law programs include:

  • Tort law: Tort law refers to when an individual pursues compensation for harm done to them. This course often discusses intentional torts, negligence and strict liability and how to defend against these claims.

  • Contract law: This type of course discusses the importance and use of contracts. Contract law classes also cover topics such as legal relations, legality, morality, gifts and bargains.

  • Civil procedure: Courses that discuss civil procedures educate students about the rules, principles and procedures relating to civil litigation. Topics covered during this program include personal jurisdiction, subject-matter jurisdiction and choice of law.

  • Property law: This course educates students about the laws that govern what individuals own. Students learn more about who can own land and certain personal items.

  • Criminal law: Criminal law courses discuss the foundational components of crime. This also covers topics including criminal liability, causation, attempt, conspiracy and defense.

  • Legal methods: This course helps students learn how to conduct legal research and analysis. It also helps students understand how to write about legal topics.

3. Gain experience

Experience can help reinforce legal concepts during your educational programs. This can also help potential employers understand more about your knowledge in the legal field. Experience can also help you distinguish your resume and skills from other candidates with similar educational backgrounds. Consider these options to help you gain legal experience:

  • Pursue an internship: Internships enable you to assist current legal professionals and gain an understanding of the various duties lawyers perform. Common tasks many interns perform include legal research and draft memorandums for practicing attorneys.

  • Complete volunteer hours: Volunteering can help you earn course credits if you’re still completing your degree. This can also you understand more about administrative responsibilities and other tasks many legal professionals perform.

  • Seek employment options: Pursuing legal assistant or law firm secretary positions before completing your attorney licensing exam can help you gain administrative legal experience. This can also help you understand more about conducting legal proceedings and drafting legal documents.

4. Apply for attorney license

Upon graduation from law school, you can apply for an attorney’s license. Licensing requirements can vary between states, so researching your state’s requirements can ensure you meet all licensure requirements. Licensure requirements often specify passing a bar exam, which is typically offered twice a year. Licensing requirements often include:

  • Accomplishing a background survey

  • Completing a multiple-choice examination

  • Finishing an essay style examination

5. Gain specialized experience

Once you’ve obtained your attorney’s license, you can start pursuing specialized legal experience. Searching for job opportunities with small to midsize legal firms can help you gain experience in the criminal justice specialty. Seeking pro bono, or working without charge, opportunities can also help you gain criminal justice experience. This is useful if your employment is in a different legal specialty.

Another option to gain specialized experience is to pursue court-appointed work. Certain states or counties might lack a public defender office, which results in the court system selecting a defendant’s attorney from a court panel. Signing up for the court panel can help you gain court-appointed work in criminal defense.

6. Join professional networks

Joining professional networks can help you gain employment referrals and understand more about current criminal justice trends. Networking with other criminal defense professionals can also help you identify industry trends, such as education or certification trends. Seeking professional organizations can help you network with lawyers in the criminal defense community. Some organizations to consider joining include:

  • National Association of Criminal Justice Lawyers (NACDL)

  • Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS)

  • American Society of Criminology

  • National Criminal Justice Association

Salary and job outlook for criminal justice lawyers

The national average salary for lawyers in the United States is $73,366 per year. This value can change based on your own experience, specialty or location. There are also several benefits these professionals take part in if they’re employed by a legal firm or company. Some common benefits lawyers take part in include:

  • Health insurance

  • Dental insurance

  • Vision insurance

  • Paid time off

  • Retirement plan

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for lawyers is 9% from the years 2020 to 2030. This rate is higher than the average growth rate for all occupations, which is 8%. The increase of in-house legal counsel for companies is a contributing factor to the projected growth.


10 Criminal Justice Majors and Jobs You Can Pursue


If you’re interested in pursuing a career in criminal justice, there are a variety of academic programs that can prepare you for a role in this field. As a criminal justice major, you may encounter a diverse range of industry topics like psychology, sociology, law and public administration. Understanding your degree options and the positions you can pursue in this field can help you determine which academic program is right for you.

10 criminal justice majors

You can pursue a criminal justice degree on an associate, bachelor’s or postgraduate level. Here are some options you might want to consider:

1. Corrections major

As corrections majors, students study prison life and prepare for roles in prison and jail facilities. They may study topics like crisis intervention, prisoner’s rights and justice systems. While most majors graduate and start careers in prison facilities, others choose to take a scholarly role in research within this industry.

2. Criminology major

As a criminology major, students focus on the nature and causes of crime, criminal behavior and the criminal justice system. Majoring in criminology can also prepare you for analyzing case studies and understanding crime theory, criminal law and policy. Many students in this area learn to apply research methods and understand the roles of psychology and sociology roles within criminal justice.

3. Forensic science major

Forensic science encompasses a variety of skills that prepare students for work in crime scene investigation. Students in this field take courses on topics like computer forensics investigations, cybersecurity and forensic analysis and research. They tend to develop skills such as attention to detail, critical thinking and problem-solving.

4. Police science major

Students of police science learn about the roles and duties of police officers. They build skills in investigating crimes, developing interpersonal communication and following protocols for responding to intense situations. Some police science majors lead to an associate degree or higher, such as police and border patrol majors, while others lead to bachelor’s degrees or more advanced subjects, like private detective coursework.

5. Pre-law and legal major

Majoring in pre-law and legal studies usually leads to a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. This often entails a focus on skills relevant to paralegal and attorney job roles. As a student in a pre-law program, you can learn about theories behind laws, study the justice system and examine how law enforcement agencies and the judicial system operate.

6. Criminal justice major

Criminal justice degrees encompass a wide array of majors. Both certificate programs for law enforcement and corrections and bachelor’s programs for paralegals and private detectives count as criminal justice areas. Overall, a criminal justice degree can provide a broad foundation for further and more specific studies within the industry.

7. Sociology major

Sociology is the study of society and social structures. These sociology students who focus on criminal justice typically start with an associate program in criminal justice, followed by a bachelor’s program focusing on sociology. This major can offer opportunities for career development within fields such as human services, rehabilitation services and public relations.

8. Criminal psychology major

Criminal psychology is the study of the background and motives of a criminal. This major often requires work within a bachelor’s program, where students focus on theories of human behavior, analyzing and interpreting criminal behavior and activity. A bachelor’s program for criminal psychology majors can lead to graduate degrees in criminal psychology.

9. Law enforcement administration major

Law enforcement administration majors usually have previous law enforcement experience. They can pursue this path to learn the skills necessary to manage police and security officers as supervisors and directors. Majoring in law enforcement administration typically requires a bachelor’s degree or prior experience or certification in law enforcement.

10. Rehabilitation services major

A rehabilitation major includes studying aspects of sociology. It can also make you eligible for career opportunities in substance abuse programs, therapy and counseling services in corrections facilities. Consider studying psychology and sociology, along with your rehabilitation major, to ensure you learn the required skills for working in this field.

16 jobs for criminal justice majors

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organization and a candidate’s experience, academic background and location. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, visit

A criminal justice degree makes you eligible for a wide variety of roles:

1. Correctional officer

National average salary: $41,147 per year

Primary duties: A correctional officer serves in prison security roles. Responsibilities within these roles include overseeing inmate activities and privileges, maintaining order and enforcing rules within jails and prisons. They also report on the conduct of inmates.

2. Law enforcement officer

National average salary: $47,507 per year

Primary duties: A law enforcement officer is responsible for protecting communities and property. Other responsibilities include patrolling neighborhoods, controlling traffic and responding to emergency calls. They may write citations, arrest offenders and submit incident reports.

3. Private investigator

National average salary: $49,659 per year

Primary duties: A private investigator examines a person or entity for a client and can work for state or private agencies. They’re responsible for adhering to all laws and regulations regarding private investigations. They gather evidence and explain their findings in a clear way.

4. Intelligence analyst

National average salary: $51,873 per year

Primary duties: An intelligence analyst collects and assesses data. Their goal is to identify and evaluate patterns in criminal activity. Those in this role do this to aid law enforcement agencies in preventing and reducing crime.

5. Paralegal

National average salary: $57,434 per year

Primary duties: A paralegal assists lawyers in various capacities, depending on their certification level and state regulations that specify what a paralegal can and can’t do. Their duties typically encompass drafting and filing paperwork, researching case laws and interviewing witnesses and defendants. They also work on building cases for defendants or against other individuals or groups.

6. Security officer

National average salary: $58,814 per year

Primary duties: A security officer patrols a building, grounds or facilities to protect people and assets. Their job is to watch for suspicious activities or warnings of crime. They then follow specific procedures to raise alarms and alert authorities.

7. Social worker

National average salary: $60,186 per year

Primary duties: A social worker helps people cope with life experiences. Those who work in criminal justice might collaborate with local law enforcement agencies, behavior specialists and rehabilitation specialists to prevent criminal activity. They may also assist families and victims of abuse, diagnose behavioral and mental disorders and offer counseling for substance abuse.

8. Legal secretary

National average salary: $60,022 per year

Primary duties: A legal secretary is an administrative assistant with expertise in law. Those in this role use their skills to improve efficiency at a law firm. They also assist lawyers and other legal experts by preparing documents, setting meetings and typing court minutes.

9. Forensic scientist

National average salary: $62,717 per year

Primary duties: A forensic scientist collects and analyzes the physical evidence of committed crimes. Their work supports detectives and officers in solving a crime. Often, forensic scientists operate with mobile tools and equipment.

10. Forensic accountant

National average salary: $79,845 per year

Primary duties: A forensic accountant interprets and summarizes financial and business documents to find evidence of a crime. Their investigations aid authorities in identifying financial misconduct. For example, they may examine alleged instances of fraud.

11. Judge

National average salary: $74,135 per year

Primary duties: A judge has an obligation to uphold the law. Their job is to ensure lawyers and other people in the legal profession are abiding by the law. They also preside over court cases where they make motion decisions, give rulings and instruct juries.

12. Policy analyst

National average salary: $77,392 per year

Primary duties: A policy analyst evaluates public policies to determine the efficacy of governmental interventions. They investigate public issues to determine the best policy solutions for communities. They then express their insights to the public, civil servants, activities and elected officials.

13. Detective

National average salary: $84,012 per year

Primary duties: A detective investigates complex crimes. They typically collaborate with police officers and interview witnesses and suspects to gain more information about an incident. They may also work undercover and make arrests.

14. Attorney

National average salary: $99,107 per year

Primary duties: An attorney, specifically a defense attorney, specializes in defendant case management, arraignment, pretrial hearings and settlement conferences. They attend court trials and hearings on behalf of their clients. Defense attorneys can work for various organizations at the local, state or federal level or for private law firms.

15. Psychologist

National average salary: $101,720 per year

Primary duties: A criminal psychologist conducts criminal profiling. This is the process of identifying likely suspects of a crime. Other responsibilities include aiding law enforcement in analyzing and solving crimes, assessing criminal behavior and providing expert testimony in court cases.

16. Behavioral specialist

National average salary: $138,272 per year

Primary duties: A behavioral specialist within criminal justice may work with youth at risk of criminal activity or other negative behavior. They work with schools, community leaders, families and social workers to monitor and implement behavior strategies to help at-risk youth. Their goal is to support communities and reduce crime rates in an area.

Frequently asked questions

What are the advantages of a criminal justice degree?

Criminal justice degree programs provide students with a wide skill set upon completion. You can gain new competencies and develop experience within a combination of fields, ultimately developing your knowledge base. These fields may include sociology, psychology, information technology and social work.

How can I tell if a criminal justice career is right for me?

If you’re considering pursuing a criminal justice degree to begin your career in this field, it’s important to consider your interests, availability and skills. For example, this can be a great field if you’re interested in giving back to your community since a majority of roles in criminal justice involve preventing crime and protecting citizens.

How can I improve my candidacy for a criminal justice job?

Earning a criminal justice degree is a great way to improve your candidacy for a job in this field. If you know what role you want to pursue, consider researching the position’s academic requirements. For example, some roles may only require an associate degree, while others prefer candidates who have graduate degrees. This can hlp you better prepare for the position you want and make yourself a good fit for the job.

Criminal Justice Lawyer
Criminal Justice Lawyer

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