Criminal law is a fast-paced area of practice that provides the opportunity for extensive courtroom experience and the reward of being able to help people and protect the integrity of the justice system. Criminal lawyers work in a variety of capacities, ranging from traditional criminal prosecution and defense work to policy advising, legislative drafting, correctional administration, and policing.
Criminal prosecutors represent federal, state, or local governments in cases brought against people charged with violating a criminal statute or ordinance. Federal prosecutors work in U.S. Attorney's Offices in each of the federal judicial districts, overseas, and in the military. Those prosecuting state and local ordinances work in the state attorney's office (often called the Attorney General's Office), county district attorneys' offices, or city attorneys' offices. While almost all prosecutors are government employees, private lawyers sometimes prosecute ordinance and traffic violations for smaller communities. Prosecutors often describe themselves as public servants representing the interests of the public. They do not have clients in the same sense as lawyers in other practice areas, but represent the community's interests.
Criminal defense lawyers represent persons charged with crimes. Many are employed by the government as public defenders, providing defense counsel to indigent defendants. Others work for private law firms, representing defendants who do not qualify as indigents or accepting representation for indigent defendants through contracts with local governments. Private criminal defense lawyers typically work at small and medium-size firms, though some large firms represent individual and institutional clients in regulatory investigations, criminal prosecutions, and internal investigations, covering subjects ranging from securities fraud inquiries and bank regulatory investigations to state and federal grand jury probes. Lawyers who do criminal defense work in private firms often come to private practice after having had government experience.
Lawyers work in many other areas within the criminal justice as well. Lawyers may represent the interests of criminal justice agencies, such as law enforcement or corrections; serve as counsel for organizations that promote criminal justice system reform; work as legislative aides; or serve directly as law enforcement officers or investigators.
Those interested in criminal law need to have strong written and oral communication skills, be able to handle multiple tasks and be well-organized, and adapt to a sometimes hectic and unpredictable workload. For many direct advocacy positions, it is also important to enjoy litigation and excel at negotiation. Criminal lawyers also need to be good listeners, be able to deal with people from different backgrounds, and be prepared to deal with stressful situations.
The Law School offers a Criminal Law Concentration Certificate.
These are the most fundamental courses in which students interested in criminal law should enroll. In addition, students interested in criminal law should take at least one related clinical program (see below).
- Introduction to Substantive Criminal Law (first-year requirement)
- Introduction to Criminal Procedure (first-year elective)
- Sentencing & Corrections
Students interested in this practice area should consider including one or more of the following courses as electives.
- Selected Problems in Constitutional Law: 4th, 5th & 6th Amendment
- Mental Health Law
- Trial Advocacy
- Advanced Legal Writing
These courses deepen or broaden the skills and substantive information that a lawyer in this field may need and also provides advanced course work for students interested in a specialty within this area of practice.
- Tax I
- Business Organizations I
- Client Counseling and Interviewing
- Federal Jurisdiction
- Domestic Violence
- Wrongful Convictions
If you have particular Criminal Law curriculum questions, please feel free to contact:
Director, Prosecution Project
Clinical Programs, Internships and Externships
The Criminal Appeals Project gives students an opportunity to be directly involved in the appellate process. Under the direct supervision of clinical faculty, students work in pairs on the appeal of two criminal convictions. The project, which is available to second- and third-year law students, requires a two-semester commitment.
Wisconsin Innocence Project
In the Wisconsin Innocence Project, UW law students, under the direct supervision of clinical faculty, investigate and litigate claims of innocence in cases involving inmates in state and federal prisons in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The project is available to students who are accepted into the program in the summer after their first or second year of law school and requires a one year commitment (Summer full time, and an additional 7 credits divided between the following fall and spring terms).
The Legal Assistance to Institutionalized Persons Project, known as LAIP, is the largest of the Remington Center's clinical projects. In LAIP, students work under the direct supervision of clinical faculty to provide legal assistance to state and federal prison inmates throughout Wisconsin.
This program provides an opportunity for second-year students to work as summer interns in district attorneys' offices throughout Wisconsin. The student's summer experience is sandwiched between a spring classroom component and a fall reflective seminar.
Public Defender Project
The Public Defender Project gives second-year students the opportunity to work as summer interns in State Public Defender trial offices throughout Wisconsin. The students' summer experience is sandwiched between a spring classroom component and a fall reflective seminar.
The Restorative Justice Project gives students the opportunity to practice mediation skills and assess the effectiveness of an alternative dispute resolution process by providing mediation between the victims of crime and the criminal offenders. The project is open to students who have completed their first year of Law School.
Second and third-year law students can receive academic credit for externship work in the area of criminal law at organizations such as the Federal Defender's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Wisconsin, and other government agencies that focus on criminal law matters. Contact Externship Director Erin McBride for additional information.
The Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence (now known as End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin) sponsors an externship in which law students assist with legal inquiries and research regarding domestic violence issues.
The Judicial Internship Program places students with trial and appellate judges throughout Wisconsin, including placements with the Wisconsin Supreme Court and at the federal district courts for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin. Student work varies but usually emphasizes research and writing.
Additional information about the Criminal Law Concentration.
Here are some of the faculty who teach or have an interest in this subject area:
Director, Prosecution Project
Co-Director, Wisconsin Innocence Project
Clinical Associate Professor
Clinical Assistant Professor
Wisconsin Innocence Project
In addition to our full-time faculty, the Law School's adjunct faculty members — prominent practicing lawyers and judges — bring their specialized knowledge and experience to the classroom. Adjunct Faculty List.
Student Organizations and Related Activities
The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy is a national organization of law students, law professors, practicing lawyers and members of the community. We want to help revitalize and transform legal debate, from law school classrooms to federal courtrooms.
The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be. The Society seeks both to promote an awareness of these principles and to further their application through its activities.
There are three student journals — Wisconsin Law Review, Wisconsin International Law Journal, and Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society — that give students an opportunity to assist with and contribute to the Law School's scholarly publications. These publications provide invaluable training in legal research and writing. Students receive academic credit for this activity.
Mock Trial provides real trial experience at a competitive level. Students participate in nationwide competitions that give them opportunities to give opening and closing statements and direct- and cross-examine witnesses. For the student interested in litigation it is an invaluable experience to learn skills you may not get in the classroom. Students receive academic credit for this activity.
Moot Court is a mock appellate advocacy program that provides invaluable experience for students in brief writing and oral advocacy. Students receive academic credit for this activity.
National Lawyers Guild
The Madison Chapter of the NLG is a community chapter with both lawyers and law student members. The National Lawyers Guild is a nationwide organization of lawyers and law students dedicated to working for social justice. Formed in 1937 as the first racially integrated bar association in the country, the Guild tries to bring together all those who recognize the importance of safeguarding and extending the rights of workers, women, farmers, and minority groups upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends; who actively seek to eliminate racism; who work to maintain and protect our civil rights and liberties; and who view the law as an instrument for the protection of the people, rather than their repression.