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The Oracle

I’m interested in criminal law but don’t want to defend criminals

updated on 29 August 2023

Dear Oracle

I’m interested in a career in criminal law, but I’m not sure how I’d feel defending a client who I knew was guilty of a serious crime such as murder. Should I consider a different area of law?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: two minutes

If you feel that defending people accused (or indeed guilty) of heinous crimes would play too much on your conscience then criminal law might not be for you. Of the many human beings on the planet, some do horrific things that most people would never condone or even want to think about. Being a successful criminal lawyer will bring you into contact with criminals who’ve committed serious crimes and if you’re uncomfortable with the thought of such interactions (which is completely fine) it’s probably worth researching alternative practice areas to find one that better suits you.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) code of conduct consists of 10 principles including that a solicitor must:

  • uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice;
  • act with integrity; and
  • act in the best interests of each client.

Lawyers play an essential role in the upholding of justice and humanity within society, whether in prosecution or defence. Professionalism is the key; when a lawyer defends someone in court, they’re not doing so for personal reasons – lawyers have a duty to defend their client to the best of their abilities because the right to a fair trial is an essential part of a democratic society. This is why barristers are bound by the cab rank rule which means a barrister must take a case that’s within their knowledge and expertise if they’re free, regardless of how heinous the crime is. If a lawyer defends a guilty person, they’re just doing their job – you must be able to accept your role within the justice system.

Lawyers must therefore be professional in carrying out their roles, although of course they’re human, and inevitably some will find the knowledge of harrowing crimes difficult to leave at work. Being a criminal lawyer requires professionalism, integrity, compassion and mental fortitude – it's a vital role in society, but not everyone could do it. Think carefully about your convictions regarding this; if nothing else, you’ll learn something about yourself, and possibly what sort of path you should be taking professionally.

For an insight into life as a criminal barrister, read this Practice Area Profile