The pros and cons of... Practising criminal law

Learn more about the benefits of practicing criminal law in Canada, including some of its disadvantages and how to overcome them

The pros and cons of... Practising criminal law
Practicing criminal law has many ups and downs

Updated 04 Apr 2024

As with any other legal practice area, criminal law can be challenging. With the proper legal education and the help from mentors who are experts in the field, one can still master this part of the Canadian legal profession.

Hear from top criminal lawyers in Canada on what makes the practice of criminal law so fulfilling. This article is for junior lawyers who want to enter the field of criminal law. It may also interest law students who are exploring this field.

Important aspects of criminal law

Canadian criminal law has many aspects that both junior and senior lawyers should be familiar with. Here are some of them:

Mastering the federal Criminal Code

When talking about criminal justice in Canada, the first thing to come to mind is the federal Criminal Code, which is the foundation of our criminal law. Mastering the Code is a must for those who want to practice criminal law in Canada.

The code outlines everything from how a crime is committed to its possible defences. Knowing the Code is a good starting point in pursuing criminal law. More importantly, when either prosecuting or defending the accused, knowledge of the Code is necessary.

Other statutes with criminal offences

Aside from the Criminal Code, there are also other statutes in Canada that provide criminal offences, along with its penalties. These statutes are found both at the federal and provincial levels. For example, the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act specifies drug-related offences.

As to provincial criminal statutes, some examples are roads and highway-related offences, such as the Highway Traffic Act of Alberta or Ontario.

Criminal lawyers are expected to be familiar with these federal and provincial statutes, including their prosecution, the court that has jurisdiction, and the prescribed penalties.

Regularly checking common law

While criminal lawyers must familiarize themselves with the Code as the main source of Canada’s criminal law, common law principles are also part of it, especially in its certain aspects.

Annamaria Enenajor, a partner at Ruby Shiller Enenajor Barristers in Toronto, gave her insights on the practicing criminal law in Canada. The practice was named one of the Top Criminal Law Firms in Canada.

Enenajor says that new lawyers and students need to “keep up to date with the law by regularly reviewing cases released by the Ontario Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada.”

Certain defences against crimes are found in common law, as other sources aside from the Code. Some decisions may clarify – or even limit – these defences. For instance, a 2022 decision of the Supreme Court discussed the defence of extreme intoxication under Section 33.1 of the Code.

In other landmark decisions, the Supreme Court may even declare certain crimes in the Code as unconstitutional, such as in the old case of R. v. Morgentaler. Here, the Court held that the Code’s restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional.

Staying updated on new Court rulings is crucial, not just when practicing criminal law but also in other practice areas. These rulings have a huge impact on Canadian laws.

To understand more about the role of criminal lawyers in Canada, watch this video:

Head over to CL Talk for podcasts of interviews from lawyers giving valuable insights on Canada’s legal profession.

What are the pros of practicing criminal law in Canada?

Although practicing criminal law is not always a walk in the park, there are also upsides to it. Here are some of these advantages coming from some of the best criminal lawyers in the country:

A purposeful profession

“There is no greater feeling of pure professional success than to save a client’s life and reputation. The role offers professional achievement that is unparalleled,” says Joven Narwal.

Narwal is a partner at Narwal Litigation LLP, one of the top criminal law firms in Canada listed in our Special Report.

Shedding light on social issues

Narwal also talked about the crucial role played by criminal lawyers, who are often said to serve society by serving their clients. “[I]n holding the state to account and illuminating difficult truths about society, [the role] offers a deep and unparalleled sense of purpose that goes beyond any traditional measure of success.”

This includes issues related to systemic racism, overincarceration and the steady creeping loss of privacy, Narwal says. “By humanizing those who are dehumanized and reviled by the system, criminal lawyers reveal difficult and unpopular truths about society which can spark movements for change.”

Aside from shedding light on these social issues, criminal lawyers also serve the public. “Every constitutional argument serves as a proxy for the many that go undetected and we guard the Rule of Law by ensuring a robust adversarial system of justice,” Narwal adds.

A personal advocacy

Sean Robichaud, a criminal defense lawyer based in Toronto, says that there’s great satisfaction, especially in cases that criminal lawyers truly believe in.

“It’s a much more effective advocacy. You’ll have your ultra-highs where you think someone is totally innocent and they’re acquitted,” says Robichaud.

Opportunity for specialization

Criminal law in Canada is broad. Crimes and penalties are listed not just in the Code, but also in other federal and provincial statutes. This broad aspect of criminal law is an opportunity for criminal lawyers to focus on one specific aspect.

For example, Neuberger & Partners LLP developed its specialty on sexual and domestic assault defence work. The firm also made it to our list of the top criminal law firms in the country.

This video explains how Neuberger & Partners LLP defends clients charged with drug related cases, which is another area of practice in criminal law:

Check out our Rankings page for other Special Reports that list the best lawyers in different legal practice areas from various regions in the country.

What are the challenges of being a criminal lawyer in Canada?

Practicing criminal law in Canada is a meaningful practice, especially when looking at the successful results of the case.

But, as with any other job, difficulties may arise during one’s day-to-day work. Below are some of these challenges, and the ways to cope with them straight from the best criminal lawyers:

A very “private” practice

Lawyers practicing criminal law may feel very alone, as compared to other legal practice areas. “The practice of criminal defence can be very isolating. Most people practicing in this area are solo practitioners or are part of a small firm,” Enenajor says.

“When you enter the practice, develop a plan that will create a supportive community around you, because you will need it in this challenging line of work.”

She also suggests:

  • joining the Criminal Lawyers’ Association
  • practicing out of a chamber with other criminal defence practitioners
  • finding senior counsel to bounce ideas off of

Getting emotionally attached

Judge Robert B. Hyslop says that whether you’re a prosecutor or a defence counsel, you’re dealing with a high volume of humanity in distress. Hyslop worked as a former Crown prosecutor in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.

“You’re dealing with emotions at their rawest, with victims, accused criminals, people at their weakest and most vulnerable,” says Hyslop.

He advises counsels, especially those who represent the Crown, to keep their distance from their clients and stay unbiased. “Once you get emotionally involved, you lose your impartiality, certainly as a Crown counsel. You have to avoid that at all costs.”

Especially for newly minted lawyers, getting emotionally involved may happen, says Robichaud. “If you feel someone is innocent, and they’re convicted, it totally destroys you.”

Struggle between duty and life

“While the work is deeply rewarding, there is a constant struggle between duty to the clients and duties toward family and other important aspects of life,” says Narwal. “Hierarchy of priorities and the devotion of resources to yourself, friends/family, the profession and clients can fluctuate.”

Narwal suggests ensuring that these are conscious decisions. Criminal lawyers must “meaningfully re-evaluate and recalibrate along the way,” he says. Otherwise, the practice can become all-consuming.

Advice for those who want to be a criminal lawyer in Canada

The best criminal lawyers in Canada share some tips on doing well in this field. Here’s what they have to say:

Develop complex set of skills

Narwal says that “criminal law offers the greatest platform to showcase forensic skills across multiple dimensions of advocacy.”

“Criminal trials are high-pressure stages where counsel must use all their oratorical skills to persuade through storytelling, logical reasoning, and through the ability to explain complex legal concepts in an understandable and relatable way.”

He also highlighted that criminal cases involve unique and challenging legal issues. That is why these “are not easily addressed by a straightforward application of precedents.”

As a result, practicing criminal law “requires intellectual rigor and creativity to develop novel arguments, which counsels present in [their] skillful and compelling written submissions,” says Narwal.

Improve on one’s communication skills

As for Hyslop, communication skills are most important when dealing with people. This is especially true when representing clients who have emotional problems, mental problems, or substance abuse problems.

“If you can’t communicate your client’s situation to the court, you’re at a loss. If you don’t have those skills, you had better learn how to develop them,” says Hyslop.

Reach out to other criminal lawyers

Lastly, there are no better people to get advice from about practicing criminal law than criminal lawyers themselves.

“Criminal defence lawyers are extremely collegial and generous with their time. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a lawyer whom you admire,” says Enenajor.

Key points in practicing criminal law in Canada

Criminal lawyers – or even lawyers in general – can find both the positives and some negatives in their profession.

While it can be fulfilling because it makes an impact on the lives of others, being a criminal lawyer also has its downside. One way to address this is to learn from the best criminal lawyers in Canada, such as by what they’ve shared in this article.

As lawyers in the criminal field which is mostly adversarial in nature, finding solace with each other can make a difference.

Check out our list of the Top Criminal Law Firms in Canada to meet the best lawyers in the practice of criminal law.

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