Criminal solicitors advise and appear in court on behalf of both accused persons and the prosecution, handling the full spectrum of offences, from minor motoring misdemeanours to more serious crimes, including murder. They deal with all aspects of the criminal justice system, from the initial police interview to trial before the court.
“Being a criminal solicitor can feel a bit like being a doctor,” says Danielle Reece-Greenhalgh, associate solicitor at criminal firm Corker Binning. “We spend a lot of time working to fix people’s problems, which is hugely rewarding, but sometimes our most important role is to guide individuals through a series of often unpalatable choices. There’s no doubting that it’s a fundamentally difficult job – if it was easy, there would be something wrong.” Danielle goes on to explain how criminal solicitors engage with clients at often the most difficult time of their lives: “You have to be realistic. Sometimes it is possible to find a route through the situation, but at other times we have to help a client come to terms with a prison sentence or other kind of life-changing consequence.”
Thinking on your feet
For Danielle, the choice of barrister or solicitor was a tempting but ultimately clear decision. As she explains: “There’s undoubtedly something extremely attractive about the opportunity to be involved in the advocacy and the excitement of a trial environment as a barrister, but I’ve always been attracted to getting to know a case fully and building relationships. I really enjoy that initial contact with a client, often when they are at – or about to go to – a police station. You have very little information at this point and need to think on your feet, providing advice which can have serious strategic implications further down the line.” It is this ability to connect with people and think tactically in a short amount of time that Danielle refers to as a real satisfaction of the job.
Danielle studied law at university because it seemed like a natural route, combining her enjoyment of problem-solving and her flair for the humanities. She took the decision to develop her interest in ideas of justice, particularly overseas justice, by undertaking a masters in criminal law and international human rights. “It was a fantastic opportunity to explore the academic side of the aspects of law which really interested me, without any kind of restriction and under the guidance of experts,” she says, describing the direct link between her studies and current practice. “I did a lot of research on the evolving evidential burdens in sexual offence trials and international and comparative law. I have been able to put that into practice because of my current work in extradition cases, which frequently raise arguments as to the ability of countries to guarantee or safeguard a requested person’s fundamental human rights.”
No two cases are the same
Fraud, general crime and extradition are Danielle’s specialisms, which reflect the niche expertise Corker Binning is known for. Her work involves not only complex issues surrounding often politically motivated extradition and INTERPOL cases, but also rape trials and work with young people accused of possessing indecent images, or sexting. “It’s the variety of my work which makes it exciting,” says Danielle, citing a specific case from her time as a trainee that stands out as a particular career highlight: “I worked on a large bribery and corruption trial involving a UK company (and its executives) accused of paying bribes in order to obtain contracts overseas. We represented one of the company’s directors and I was lucky to be able to assist in preparing the case as well as attending court every day during trial. It was so valuable to get involved in such a complex case at an early stage in my career. Best of all, our client was acquitted.”
Danielle’s advice to trainees is to challenge themselves in the way she was challenged during her period of training at Corker Binning: “Every experience should feel slightly new. That’s the beauty and uniqueness of this area of law – no two cases are the same because every client will present a different set of problems, circumstances and personal background. You get to keep learning throughout your career with each new case.” She describes the collaborative nature of the working environment within a smaller specialist firm like Corker Binning, which means that partners, associates, trainees and paralegals often all work together towards the same goal and are able to share information and lessons learnt. In this career, there’s always somebody to bounce ideas off.
The importance of soft skills for criminal solicitors is not to be underestimated. “You need to have good interaction skills and the ability to not judge people according to what they are alleged to have done,” Danielle explains, listing the ability to listen as another underrated skill. Of course, a capacity for and enjoyment of analysis comes as a prerequisite to the job as well – “Being able to really break down the evidence in a case is at the core of criminal law. You will have different versions of the same event from the client and prosecution, and must analyse the situation, and the advice you provide to your client, based on all the information in your possession.”
Danielle goes on to describe how the ability to unravel a case can sometimes be like detective work, especially when preparing for trial. “Your client can be telling you one thing and the prosecution another,” says Danielle. “At the most basic level my job involves figuring out the best route through with the least damage to the client’s future.”
On the ground experience
If this sounds like it might be the job for you, Danielle has some pearls of wisdom. “You really need to be sure about your career options and base your choice on actual experiences,” she says. “There’s only so much you can learn from reading a firm’s website or watching a TV drama!” Work experience is a crucial component to making this decision, with Danielle going as far as to say that working as a paralegal or police station representative before training in criminal law should be compulsory. “It helps you to deal with the kind of situations you’ll meet to when qualifying and teaches you to adapt to fast-moving situations.”
Danielle also advocates students trying to gain experience at a criminal law firm of any size: “Go down to your local high street firm and see if you can shadow someone who is going to police stations and meeting clients. You’ll never get a substitute for seeing how this job actually works on the ground.”
For those who are still not quite sure about whether being a solicitor is the right option for you, there are other avenues you can pursue: “There’s policy work, civil service work, legal journalism or academia,” lists Danielle. “Don’t confine yourself at an early stage. Think about your options, get some work experience and be absolutely sure about what is most important to you in your working life before you embark on this journey.”