What do Criminal/Constitutional Law Jobs look like?

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What do Criminal/Constitutional Law Jobs look like?

Post by bciara96 » Sun Feb 09, 2020 1:37 pm

Hello all!

I'm currently a 0L trying to decide where to go to school. When getting advice for selecting a school, I noticed a lot of it centered on what I was interested in practicing. As a 0L, I know this is likely to change, but I currently have an interest in criminal law (criminal defense) and constitutional law (appellate litigation). Growing up, I always saw myself as a criminal defense attorney, but I'm realizing I don't know a lot about different job options (for instance, I learned it's very rare to go straight into a private firm for criminal defense). I'm not inherently opposed to starting in a public defenders office but I am concerned about high cost of living and low income (ideal practice area is DC/Northern Virginia area). I decided I should get a better idea of what my other interests might be and what those careers might look like.

1) How unlikely is it to go straight to a private firm for criminal defense? (I'm not interested in white collar). What do raises look like in the public defenders (and for prosecutors as well, I suppose, in the interest of being thorough) office? How long do people usually stay in the public defenders office until moving to a private firm? What other relevant information is there that you think I should know?

2) Where do appellate attorneys usually work? I read that there aren't specialized firms, that they just kind of exist at firms that also do other things. If not working completely on appellate cases, what would other work tasks look like? What does the pay look like? How important is school ranking for pursuing a job in this field? What other relevant information is there?

If you have any additional information or resources about job descriptions, types of firms, things I should be doing to prepare for each type (I know clerkships are a biggie for appellate), etc, I would really appreciate it. Thanks!


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Re: What do Criminal/Constitutional Law Jobs look like?

Post by nixy » Sun Feb 09, 2020 1:43 pm

Just for the record, appellate work and constitutional law aren’t at all synonymous.

FWIW, here are the ways I know of people doing appellate work:

- you're hired by a firm, and you would need some kind of appellate clerkship. For a smaller local firm, a state appellate clerkship might work, but the bigger the firm, the more you would need a federal appellate clerkship, which requires top grades and (usually) a top school (if you're the top student at the local law school you probably have a decent shot as well, but it's very hard to guarantee being the very top student). You may or may not get to spend all your time on appellate work - it depends on how much appellate work the firm has and how many people to work on it. It is possible to do exclusively appellate, but you might well also do general litigation work. This will all largely be civil work.

- you work for a state AG's office defending criminal appeals, or a state (or federal) public defender's office writing criminal appeals. You can specialize in appellate at a federal prosecution office as well, but these jobs are fewer in part b/c a lot of these offices practice vertical prosecution, so the person who prosecuted the case to start with keeps it through the appeal. (These jobs also generally require a federal appeals clerkship and are just super competitive to get.) Depending on the state, criminal appeals work at a state AG's office is staffed a lot by former state appellate clerks.

- I have seen some solo criminal practitioners who specialize in appeals, often to handle cases the local PDs are conflicted out of taking. These I think are usually people who've worked in a given market for quite a while and probably as a public defender (or maybe private criminal defense) for a number of years.


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Re: What do Criminal/Constitutional Law Jobs look like?

Post by arose928 » Wed Feb 12, 2020 1:35 am

PD here, with just a few points.

-trial-level work and appellate work are two totally different beasts, styles, and speeds
-a lot of PD offices in urban areas actually pay relatively well. Not big law level of course, but pretty decent. I'm in a somewhat suburban county and starting is $74k; after one year it's $90k, after two years its $100k; and up and up til you max out around $150k.
-different PD offices will obviously have diff ranges and different progressions. Mine is somewhat of an outlier in that it's an automatic progression, it's not based on # of trials or anything like that
-I would assume it is highly unlikely to go into private practice as a criminal defense atty straight out of law school, esp if you ARENT doing white collar. This is just anecdata but I went to a T14 and can't think of anyone I know who went into private criminal defense. But I know at least 10 PDs (and some prosecutors) from my class. And - talk to a prosecutor to confirm - but being a prosecutor might actually be a better path to being a private crim def atty.
-most people that I know of in PD offices stay there, they are not aspiring to go into private practice. For one, PD life can be addicting. For two, there's the added benefit of retirement/pension plans, not having to staff/administrate your own office, etc. Most of the private attys I know are solo practitioners so there's a lot of logistical stuff involved in that (malpractice insurance, etc) that is avoided by being in an office. And the types of people that PD offices attract are not the type of people trying to make top dollar at a fancy firm
-'appellate attorney' is going to be more of a unicorn-type position. I just don't think there's a ton of jobs in that particular area, or jobs that are readily accessible

My advice for you as a 0L would be to figure out where you want to end up ultimately (geographically) and go to school there. Don't try to figure out yet if you want to be a trial attorney, appellate attorney, etc. For one, that's not really a reason to go to one school or another. For two, you will really have no idea what you want to do until you get in there and try it. I did an appellate clinic in law school and it was mind-numbing. Some of my friends tried out PD offices and it was not a good fit for them. It's hard to tell ahead of time.


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Re: What do Criminal/Constitutional Law Jobs look like?

Post by FND » Sun Feb 16, 2020 11:54 pm

I need to point out that it varies significantly by market. In a small market, you could start in criminal defense almost immediately if you happen to get lucky that you get hired by a firm that does criminal defense and has an immediate need. Likewise, in a small state that doesn't have as many specialized attorneys, it's possible to get lucky, and that criminal case you worked on that I described a minute ago ends up being appealed and you could be doing that work too.

Of course, the problem is that jobs in such markets are much harder to come by, and the stars need to align just right for you to be applying to the right firm at the right time.

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