World of Law: A Career in Criminal Law

BY ANGELA YINGLING

A lot of students enter law school with a vague desire to enter the field of criminal law -inspired, perhaps, by near-constant Law and Order re-runs and movies like A Time to Kill and Twelve Angry Men. Many of these students will change their minds as they make their way through school, ultimately opting to practice in other areas of the law. But for those still considering a career in criminal law, or who just wanted to learn a little more about the realities of the field, OPIA’s November 16th World of Law panel featured several successful criminal attorneys who were ready to share what they have learned over the years. The panelists spoke of their current jobs and the paths they took to get there, giving students advice and tips they had picked up along the way.

Lisa Williams, one of the attorney advisors at OPIA, moderated the discussion among the panelists, who represented all sides of the criminal law spectrum-state and federal, public and private, prosecution and defense.

Carol Brook of the Northern District of Illinois Federal Defender Program, and Marie Osborne, Chief of the Juvenile Division of the Office of the Miami-Dade County Public Defender, spoke of their experiences as career-long members of the defense bar, while Gregg Maisel (HLS ’89) of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and Craig Hum of the Homicide and Gang Unit in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office shared the stories and advice accumulated from years of working in prosecutors’ offices. The fifth panelist, Michael Horowitz (HLS ’87)–currently a partner at the firm of Cadwalader and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the Deputy Attorney General of the Criminal Division at Department of Justice-was in the unique position of being able to discuss experiences collected from his time working on both sides of the criminal justice aisle.

Despite their varied career choices and experiences, the panelists reiterated several pieces of general advice for students considering entering the field of criminal law. Each panelist suggested that the students make the most out of their time in law school. They also indicated that the most telling experiences often occur outside the classroom, in summer internships or clinical placements. Such positions not only provide students with a valuable perspective on the true inner workings of the criminal justice system but also give them a chance to network with lawyers already in the field.

Several of the panelists noted that their summer and clinical work cemented their desires to enter the field of criminal law, while others credited internships with opening their eyes to the possibilities that existed beyond traditional big-firm work. In addition, the Trial Advocacy Workshop was touted by HLS alum Maisel, who called it “one of the best classes [he has] ever taken.”

The panelists gave mixed reviews when one student asked about clerkships. Maisel indicated that the few students that the U.S. Attorney’s Office hires a year out of law school almost always have done clerkships and have received favorable recommendations from a judge. In contrast, both Brook and Osborne suggested that the skills needed for successful work in their offices were more practical and less academic than a clerkship provides. While a clerkship would not hurt, they indicated, it was by no means the most important thing that they looked for on an applicant’s résumé. “We are looking for practitioners…who can think on their feet, make solid and convincing presentations, and negotiate skillfully with prosecutors,” Osborned said.

All of the panelists admitted that they have faced some terrifying moments in their careers, especially during their first moments in court or their first big trials.

But each panelist, at some point in the evening and in some way or another, said, “I love my job.” Perhaps Brook put it best. She stated that a career in criminal law an “take you to places that you, sitting here, can’t dream of…it can take you to where you want to go.” For students trying to decide where they want to spend their summers or first years out of law school, these words of encouragment are most welcome.

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