How to Choose Between Pursuing a Career in Criminal Law or Civil Law

Apr 24, 2023

While some law students may have a preference for either criminal or civil law early on, many aspiring attorneys do not make a definitive decision until later in their law school education or even after graduation. Law school provides students with a broad foundation in various aspects of law, equipping them with the tools and knowledge needed to explore different aspects of law before deciding on a career focus.

During law school you’ve taken courses in both criminal and civil law, and may have even participated in internships, externships or clinics that exposed you to real-world legal experiences. These experiences may have left you with preferences, interests or unique strengths that push you toward a specific area of practice (or maybe even discouraged you from pursuing a type of law).

Beginning in civil law, a district attorney office or at a criminal defense firm doesn’t necessarily lock you into that area of law for the rest of your career. It is not uncommon for attorneys to change their focus or area of practice throughout their careers. The skills, knowledge and legal language acquired in law school generally transfers well across different practice areas, giving attorneys the flexibility to transition between criminal and civil law or between representing plaintiffs, defendants or the people as their interests and career goals evolve.

Is Tort Law a Good Choice for New Lawyers?

There’s no simple answer when it comes to career choices for anyone, including attorneys. While you can change your practice area in the future, there’s always a significant incentive to choose the right path for you early on. Legal experience is hugely valuable as a practicing attorney, and gaining relevant experience to your long-term career goals early on can be good for your career.

Choosing a career path can be treacherous early on for a variety of reasons. It’s not dissimilar from the situation medical students find themselves in – although at least with lawyers it’s easier to change practice areas in the future.

Trade offs are an inescapable reality in the legal profession. On one end of the spectrum you have high earning potential with exceedingly high stakes, complicated internal firm politics and exhaustingly long hours. At the other end of the spectrum, you may arguably have a healthier work-life balance and less stressful competition, but you may not achieve the same level of compensation.

Plaintiff attorneys are somewhat unique in that your career success is based on your skill and what you make of it. Personal injury lawyers represent individuals who have suffered harm due to the negligence or wrongful conduct of others. One of the benefits of this position is you have the opportunity to help people who truly and often desperately need competent legal assistance, making it one of the more personally rewarding legal career paths.

The income of plaintiff lawyers can vary significantly depending on various factors, including their experience, location, the size and type of their practice and the complexity and success of their cases. In a big city like Atlanta, there is a significant demand for plaintiff lawyers, but also sometimes stiff competition.

Compared to other practice areas, the income of plaintiff lawyers can be more unpredictable because your pay is based entirely on the outcome of the firm’s cases. Contingency fees allow people who may not have money to pay hourly or a retainer to get skilled and effective legal representation, but as an attorney your pay will be a percentage of the settlement or judgment amount you win or negotiate. From a client’s perspective, it means their lawyer has an added incentive to maximize their eventual claim payment or verdict. However, if you don’t succeed, you may not receive any fees.

As a result, the income potential for plaintiff lawyers can range from relatively modest to exceptionally high. In some cases, plaintiff lawyers may earn less than their counterparts in other practice areas, especially if they work in smaller firms or handle less complex cases. On the other hand, successful plaintiff lawyers who handle high-stakes cases, such as those involving significant damages, can earn substantial income.

Choosing Between Criminal or Plaintiff Law

Defense lawyers and prosecutors are hugely important to the healthy functioning of civic society, but they’re dealing with some of the worst aspects of human nature and are often faced with hard choices that have catastrophic consequences on the lives of people involved. Working in plaintiff law – representing people who need your help against insurance companies and their corporate interests – provides a much simpler moral clarity. From a personal fulfillment standpoint, working in plaintiff law may let you sleep easier at night.

Plaintiff law is also interesting and may allow you to delve into a wide breadth of the legal landscape. From medical malpractice and product liability to premises liability and employment discrimination, there are many varied aspects of plaintiff law that can keep you intellectually stimulated. While there is significant diversity in criminal law as well, there tends to be a more finite array of straightforward guidelines and statutes.

It’s important for everyone to have a defense, but the fact is defense attorneys more often than not are forced to defend people who are guilty to some degree. Some attorneys find it easier to represent the wronged party in a civil tort rather than defendants in a criminal case.

Starting out as a criminal defense attorney in a public defender’s office can also be an overwhelming and unfortunately thankless position. Public defenders serve a vital role in the justice system, but are chronically understaffed, which means they often must pursue the path of least resistance out of necessity rather than what would truly be in their client’s best interest.

Is a Job at the Dressie Law Firm in Atlanta Right for You?

If you’re interested in learning more about plaintiff law or what it’s like advocating on behalf of injured people and families in Atlanta, the Dressie Law Firm may be the place for you. Call us at (678) 726-1429 to learn more.