What’s the Difference? Civil Law vs Criminal Law Essentials

When it comes to enrolling for initial classes (and even beyond), many prospective lawyers aren’t fully sure what type of law they want to pursue––criminal or civil––and that’s perfectly OK. But navigating your degree and assessing the future at the same time can be daunting, especially when you’re gearing up to work toward a law degree. Thankfully, most law schools understand this and don’t require incoming students to immediately define the type of law they’ll be pursuing upon enrollment.

As you embark on your studies, understanding the difference between criminal and civil law is one of the first things you study. As you progress through law school, learning your preference becomes increasingly pertinent to both your education and career path, as both come with a plethora of job opportunities and responsibilities.

What is Criminal Law?

According to Princeton Review, criminal law covers a system of laws enacted to punish or reform those who have committed a criminal act against a state or nation––this also includes crimes committed against individuals. Criminal law varies based on jurisdiction; for example, in some American States, some crimes are considered more severe than others.

A criminal prosecution typically involves the government deciding whether to punish someone for committing a crime, whether misdemeanor or felony.

Misdemeanors are typically crimes that are not that serious. They are classified in most states, by letter, from least to most severe — typically in A-C format (some states use numbers) — and range in punishment from fines, to loss of privileges, to jail time. Some states, like California, Idaho, and Louisiana, do not classify misdemeanors, meaning that they assign penalties on a case-by-case basis. Examples of misdemeanors include parking tickets, public intoxication, trespassing, petty drug crimes, disorderly conduct, and certain cases of weapons possession.

Felonies are the most severe criminal offenses. They are classified in most states by a letter from least to most severe––typically in A-F format––and range in punishment from short-to-long-term imprisonment and even death. The classifications and penalties vary from state to state, so be sure to check your state’s policies. Examples of felonies include murder, aggravated and felony assault, kidnapping, arson, and the sale/manufacturing of drugs.

What is Civil Law?

According to Cornell Law School, civil law is a blanket term for all non-criminal law, typically in settling monetary or property-related disputes between private citizens. In a nutshell, civil law deals with individual rights or interests (like contractual interests) that have been violated by another individual or organization and warrant a case filing.

Civil law is typically broken down into four separate fields:

  • Contract Law enforces and interprets agreements between people, businesses, or groups related to the exchange of money, services, goods, or property.
  • Property Law governs the different forms of ownership regarding personal and real (land) property.
  • Family Law involves issues related to family relationships, including child custody, divorce, adoption, paternity, emancipation, etc.
  • Tort Law covers most civil suits, as it involves the law that protects and compensates people who have been injured by the recklessness or negligence of wrongdoers.

Key Differences Between Criminal and Civil Law

The key difference between civil and criminal law comes in the courts themselves, as criminal cases are typically prosecuted by state officials, whereas civil cases take place between plaintiffs, or private individuals/organizations. The overall processes are different, as is how they’re ultimately found guilty (criminal court) or liable (civil court).

Rather than requiring criminal law’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of evidence, civil law operates on a “preponderance of evidence” standard which, according to Cornell Law School, is a “greater than 51-percent chance that the [plaintiff’s] claim is true.”

While criminal law was designed to protect the state’s welfare, civil law focuses on private relationships between members of a given community or society.

How Criminal and Civil Law Intersect?

While criminal law and civil law were designed to address separate wrongdoings, they share similarities and even meet in the middle at times. In criminal law, crimes are viewed as offenses against the state, but some cases will actually have both civil and criminal trials if, for example, a victim sues a perpetrator for civil damages resulting from the crime.

As a litigator, there’s also the possibility you’ll be assigned a case that was once in criminal court (i.e. murder, aggravated assault, arson), as it pertains to individual human rights. Some of the most interesting and important cases challenge incarceration or other sentences on constitutional grounds.

Criminal and civil case rulings are not mutually exclusive, and they were specifically designed to be this way. A person not convicted of a crime might still be liable in a civil case for the same conduct.

How Criminal and Civil Law Intersect?

Salaries for Criminal and Civil Lawyers

Good lawyers can make a good living in whichever type of law they practice. It is important to note, however, when researching salaries and possible jobs within the criminal or civil law fields, that attorney compensation varies from state to state based on cost of living and other factors.

According to Lawyer Edu, the average criminal lawyer salary in the US is $78,500, ranging from $45,000-$130,000 or more, depending on the scope of work. Criminal lawyers can also become District Attorneys, making between $89,310 and upwards of $100,000.

The average civil litigation lawyer salary in the US is $133,437, according to Lawyer Edu. However, some civil lawyers––like medical and intellectual property attorneys, can make upwards of $200,000 and $160,000, respectively.

Deciding Between Criminal and Civil Law

Each legal role has its own job responsibilities, expectations and opportunities––each of which can differ greatly. Below are some tips to help you navigate your options and decide what is best for you:

  • Do extensive research to determine what route you don’t want to take.
  • Network with peers, professors, and professionals in various legal positions.
  • Interview lawyers working in different areas of criminal and civil law.
  • Assess job requirements and find a position that fits your skills, education and passion.

The best foundation is a rigorous curriculum with a mix of civil and criminal law courses, like those offered at St. Francis School of Law. This gives you the opportunity to hone your skills and ultimately pursue a legal career you feel passionate about.