About Criminal Law

Criminal law is a fast-paced area of practice that provides the opportunity for extensive courtroom experience and the reward of being able to help people and protect the integrity of the justice system. Criminal lawyers work in a variety of capacities, ranging from traditional criminal prosecution and defense work to policy advising, legislative drafting, correctional administration, and policing.

Criminal prosecutors represent federal, state, or local governments in cases brought against people charged with violating a criminal statute or ordinance. Federal prosecutors work in U.S. Attorney's Offices in each of the federal judicial districts, overseas, and in the military. Those prosecuting state and local ordinances work in the state attorney's office (often called the Attorney General's Office), county district attorneys' offices, or city attorneys' offices. While almost all prosecutors are government employees, private lawyers sometimes prosecute ordinance and traffic violations for smaller communities. Prosecutors often describe themselves as public servants representing the interests of the public. They do not have clients in the same sense as lawyers in other practice areas, but represent the community's interests.

Criminal defense lawyers represent persons charged with crimes. Many are employed by the government as public defenders, providing defense counsel to indigent defendants. Others work for private law firms, representing defendants who do not qualify as indigents or accepting representation for indigent defendants through contracts with local governments. Private criminal defense lawyers typically work at small and medium-size firms, though some large firms represent individual and institutional clients in regulatory investigations, criminal prosecutions, and internal investigations, covering subjects ranging from securities fraud inquiries and bank regulatory investigations to state and federal grand jury probes. Lawyers who do criminal defense work in private firms often come to private practice after having had government experience.

Lawyers work in many other areas within the criminal justice as well. Lawyers may represent the interests of criminal justice agencies, such as law enforcement or corrections; serve as counsel for organizations that promote criminal justice system reform; work as legislative aides; or serve directly as law enforcement officers or investigators.

Those interested in criminal law need to have strong written and oral communication skills, be able to handle multiple tasks and be well-organized, and adapt to a sometimes hectic and unpredictable workload. For many direct advocacy positions, it is also important to enjoy litigation and excel at negotiation. Criminal lawyers also need to be good listeners, be able to deal with people from different backgrounds, and be prepared to deal with stressful situations.

The Law School offers a Criminal Law Concentration Certificate.


Note: Whether a particular course is scheduled depends on faculty availability and student demand. View the Course Descriptions for more information about each course and when it's offered.

Core/Foundation Courses

These are the most fundamental courses in which students interested in criminal law should enroll. In addition, students interested in criminal law should take at least one related clinical program (see below).

Recommended Courses

Students interested in this practice area should consider including one or more of the following courses as electives.

Enrichment Courses

These courses deepen or broaden the skills and substantive information that a lawyer in this field may need and also provides advanced course work for students interested in a specialty within this area of practice.

Curriculum Questions

If you have particular Criminal Law curriculum questions, please feel free to contact:

Clinical Programs, Internships & Externships

Criminal Appeals Project

The Criminal Appeals Project gives students an opportunity to be directly involved in the appellate process. Under the direct supervision of clinical faculty, students work in pairs on the appeal of two criminal convictions. The project, which is available to second- and third-year law students, requires a two-semester commitment.

Learn more about the Criminal Appeals Project »

Wisconsin Innocence Project

In the Wisconsin Innocence Project, UW law students, under the direct supervision of clinical faculty, investigate and litigate claims of innocence in cases involving inmates in state and federal prisons in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The project is available to students who are accepted into the program in the summer after their first or second year of law school and requires a one year commitment (Summer full time, and an additional 7 credits divided between the following fall and spring terms).

Learn more about the Wisconsin Innocence Project »

Legal Assistance to Incarcerated People (LAIP)

The Legal Assistance to Incarcerated People Project, known as LAIP, is the largest of the Remington Center's clinical projects. In LAIP, students work under the direct supervision of clinical faculty to provide legal assistance to state and federal prison inmates throughout Wisconsin.

Learn more about LAIP »

Prosecution Project & Public Defender Projects

The Prosecution Project provides an opportunity for second-year students to work as summer interns in district attorneys' offices throughout Wisconsin. The student's summer experience is sandwiched between a spring classroom component and a fall reflective seminar.

The Public Defender Project gives second-year students the opportunity to work as summer interns in State Public Defender trial offices throughout Wisconsin. The students' summer experience is sandwiched between a spring classroom component and a fall reflective seminar. 

Learn more about the Prosecution Project & Public Defender Projects »

Restorative Justice Project

The Restorative Justice Project gives students the opportunity to practice mediation skills and assess the effectiveness of an alternative dispute resolution process by providing mediation between the victims of crime and the criminal offenders. The project is open to students who have completed their first year of Law School.

Learn more about the Restorative Justice Project »

Law Externship Course

Second and third-year law students can receive academic credit for externship work in the area of criminal law at organizations such as the Federal Defender's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Wisconsin, and other government agencies that focus on criminal law matters. 

Learn more about the Law Externship Course or contact Externship Director, Erin McBride for additional information.

End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin Clinical Program

The Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence (now known as End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin) sponsors an externship in which law students assist with legal inquiries and research regarding domestic violence issues.

Learn more about End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin Clinical Program »

Judicial Internship Program

The Judicial Internship Program places students with trial and appellate judges throughout Wisconsin, including placements with the Wisconsin Supreme Court and at the federal district courts for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin. Student work varies but usually emphasizes research and writing. 

Learn more about the Judicial Internship Program »

View the Criminal Law Concentration for additional community engagement and service learning opportunities. 

Student Organizations & Related Activities

Students involved in student activities and organizations are often strong job candidates. Employers look for students who show leadership, public service, and community involvement. 

For a full list of student organizations at UW Law, view the Student Organizations, Journals, & Activities.


Here are some of the faculty who teach or have an interest in this subject area:

In addition to our full-time faculty, the Law School's adjunct faculty members — prominent practicing lawyers and judges — bring their specialized knowledge and experience to the classroom. Filter by "Adjunct" in the Law School Directory for a full list.

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