I Want to be a Prosecutor


QI read your column a lot and know the site’s usually focused on BigLaw, but I wanted to ask if you have any advice about becoming a prosecutor. I’m a 2L at a third tier law school and I already know I love criminal law. I just love the feeling of winning trials (even if it is mock) and I’m a natural at both finding the case law for or against a defendant. I also clerked at a local law office and want to find out if there’s anything else I can do to put myself in a better position for the job. Yes, I understand my choice of school isn’t the best, but I know this is what I want to do and just need some slight guidance if you have any. Thanks.


AFirst things first. While I understand the excitement over criminal law (or “love” as you call it), that’s one small piece of the whole prosecutorial picture. The rest of the meat involves the three Ps: performance, persistence, and politics. Here’s my take on each:

Performance

More than anything in the law, trial work involves all the elements of a good performance. As in the 12 dramatic elements. You will need to hone your dramatic acting skills and apply them to the courtroom. In other words, litigation experience. As much as you can get. And as real as you can get. Not the mock stuff, which is a start but means bubkes in the end. Civil litigation is fine, obviously not as relevant, but it could help if you excel at it. If your school has a clinic, preferably a misdemeanor defense or prosecution clinic, sign up for it now. If it doesn’t have a clinic, well, shit. Consider transferring. Or volunteering at the local county or city prosecutor’s office hauling around and delivering case jackets and trying to work in time spent in the courtroom, at least observing. If you don’t have the chops to perform (and in your gut you should already know this), then consider something else.

Persistence

Despite the glamor accompanies courtroom dramas and their prosecutors (basically what I call the “Law & Order Effect”), it’s a grunt-eat-grunt job. Or at least at first. So get prepared now and do some due diligence to make sure it’s what you want to do. Take a criminal defense lawyer out to lunch. Let him or her school you in what’s good and what’s bad about criminal law and prosecutors. Let them tell you what criminal law work is really about. Find out about the humans you may one day be putting behind bars and find out from those who defend them. It will be a good lesson (and may convince you to think about CDL instead). But be persistent, not only in doing your due diligence before becoming a prosecutor, but also putting up with all the chaos, crap, and hard work that you’ll have to slog through to actually make it as one.

Politics

It’s not so much that you have to dive into politics to be a prosecutor (though it helps immensely to have political connections), it’s just that you need to understand the Machiavellian way that politics influences justice. As in who or what to prosecute. Or what your boss, the DA or DA-equivalent, says you should do. And be comfortable with it, understanding the nuances. Your job will not be locking up as many people as you can find on the street or racking up an impressive win-to-loss ratio. It’s about dispensing justice and maintaining discretion and understanding, as in when to prosecute and when you’ve met your constitutional match. Now, not all prosecutors keep that as a focus, but if you don’t think you can do that or that you are some modern day Wyatt Earp, stop now. We don’t need more douchebag prosecutors.

OK, I’ll throw a fourth P in the pool: personality. You really have to have the balls and personality to be a good prosecutor. That doesn’t mean you’re an asshole. Nor does it mean you have no substance behind your schtick and acting. It means that you are smart on your feet, can read people well, and can react quickly and appropriately to any number of folks who challenge you, whether cops, nutjobs, bureaucrats, or other lawyers. You have to have a solid personality to be a good prosecutor.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/_scypher/5371748631/)

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

12 Comments

  1. Joe

    August 5, 2011 at 8:11 am

    I would only add the relationship prosecutors have with cops. Cops can be the key to getting a guy an awesome plea deal when the case against him is locked up. Conversely, cops may hate your client for nonsensical or unknown reasons and pressure a prosecutor to bust his balls. Prosecutors are at the mercy of the police, particularly those prosecutors with a high volume of misdemeanors and low level felonies, because they have to work with the same cops again and again. The last thing they want is an adversarial relationship with the cops.

  2. Michael Idoyaga

    August 5, 2011 at 8:57 am

    The DA in my section of juvenile court just prosecuted a fourteen-year-old girl for pulling another girl’s hair. The whole incident had been handled quite adequately at the school, so the judge tossed the case out. The DA argued that this was an unauthorized touching and therefore, legally, a simple battery. And besides, the victim’s mother was quite adamant.
    This DA is actually very cool, compared to the rest of them. Is this the kind of person you wanna become? Really?

  3. Ellen

    August 5, 2011 at 10:12 am

    I sometime have thought that I would want to be a prosecutor, b/c I look alot like Angie Harmon from Law AND Order and I could be on TV also.

    But more so, I think that it will be good, if I am going to be a JUDGE, b/c three different men said that I have a very good Judicieal temparmint. I am VERY patent with people and can handle the litigants.

    So I recomend doing this to.

    • HotLawStudent

      August 5, 2011 at 10:18 pm

      I am beginning to seriously question that you are indeed an attorney! Use the spell check or leave the comment and reply functions alone. Thank you! And Angie Harmon…..doubtful. Probably a lot closer to Janet Reno.

      • Ellen

        August 6, 2011 at 7:17 pm

        Your just jelous b/c I am already admitted to the bar and am pretty. You are probabley the one who looks like Janet Reno, whoever she is. My dad says I am so beautiful, and so do men in my firm. Men all want to sleep with me, not you. Fooey on you!

        • Honestly

          August 8, 2011 at 9:01 am

          No, it’s because you’re a fake account.

  4. Quadoz

    August 5, 2011 at 11:15 am

    As a cop, I can say that I personally can’t stand prosecutors. Joe is correct. There’s a very touchy relationship between cops and prosecutors. I work in a very active..ie crime-ridden..large city. If I make an arrest it’s for a felony. I don’t have patience or respect for prosecutors who don’t know the definition of the word discretion. Maybe in small towns with nothing but traffic and DUI cases, the stick up the ass mentality works. It doesn’t work in a major city. You need to be able to select and choose and deal-deal-deal.

    Just my opinion…I agree with BL, we don”t need more d-bag prosecutors.

    Quadoz,
    City Cop by Midnight, Rookie Lawyer by Day

  5. Jonathan

    August 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Hi, I’m an occasional reader but first-time poster. What I also am is a prosecutor, and I want to respond to some of the “advice” offered in this post. From what I read, I take it the author is not a prosecutor.

    Most prosecutors, like most other lawyers, are dedicated, ethical, and hard-working. And, just like the profession as a whole, there are a few bad apples that make the rest of us look bad. So, I take issue when people use words like “douchebag” to describe us. There are plenty of criminal defense attorneys (and biglaw associates) who are also “douchebags.” That’s a profession-wide problem and the subject for another post for another time.

    I agree with the author that being able to function in the courtroom is critical. But courtroom chops is just a part of the skill set. Prosecutors have to be able to exercise discretion, handle the largest of criminal caseloads (remember, public defenders only handle a portion of the immense caseload; proseuctors handle them all), and consider the interests of the various constituencies that have a stake in a case (a victim, law enforcement, witnesses, the community and, yes, the defendant).

    Persistence is important. The author suggests this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed would-be prosecutor take a criminal defense attorney out to lunch. The author should try a little harder at being more subtle when dispensing this “conversion” advice. I’d suggest taking a prosecutor out to lunch. Or better yet, why not just contact a prosecutor and ask them to tag along or shadow for a day? It’d save lunch money. Then, the would-be prosecutor would truly find out what it’s like in the criminal arena — or at least would have a better understanding than gleaning some defense attorney’s opinion over BMTs at Subway.

    The Venn diagram that puts a jurisdiction’s elected prosecutor (who has to run for his job every two or four years) in the overlap of the “politics” and “the work of a prosecutor” circles generally does not apply to the lowest-on-the-totem-pole, front-line prosecutors, like this would-be prosecutor, well, would be. The author of this article seems to imply that politics permeates the entire hierarchy of a prosecutor’s office. Almost every job — in the legal profession or not — has a hierarchy, a pecking order with supervisors. You do what your supervisors tell you. However, the vast majority of prosecutors don’t base their decisions, or the orders to subordinates, on politics. Contrary to the implication of the author, the vast majority of prosecutors focus on “dispensing justice and maintaining discretion and understanding” — not on politics — and they know that their job is not about “locking up” everybody or “racking up an impressive win-to-loss ratio.”

    The work of a prosecutor is not easy, and there is a lot of it. However, representing the interests of the people and crime victims, and fighting for justice for everybody — including defendants — are what make prosecutors the true “public defenders.” To the would-be prosecutor, I say: come join us in the fight for justice. If you decide you don’t want to be a prosecutor, then join our profession as an ethical, dedicated, and hard-working advocate on your clients’ behalf.

    • Wilma

      August 5, 2011 at 5:45 pm

      You sound pretty smart. You also seem to have some extra time on your hands! Thanks for showing us what it’s like being a prosecutor. Maybe you can date Ellen. She says she looks like Angie Harmon! Wow!

    • Ex-Bitter

      August 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

      Thanks, Jonathan. Good advice and, correct, I’m not a former or current prosecutor so it’s nice to get input from one.

  6. Kia

    September 23, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I am a former prosecutor (“former” b/c I took time off to raise my kids, not b/c I no longer have love for my job), worked at big city office for about 7 years. The problem I have with this law student’s question is this: what is your motivation? To win? That is not the reason to become a prosecutor. You do it because you want to help people. And you need empathy and humility. You have to care as much about a prostitute who was gang-raped, as you would about a politician’s son who got robbed at gunpoint. We have a lot of power, and combined with ego, you will more likely exact injustice than justice. And you will be a douchebag. And everyone, including judges, will shake their heads and talk about you behind your back when you leave a room. If a judge has a discretionary ruling pending—they will ding you and rule in favor of the defense, just because they don’t like you. Juries will torpedo your case, even if you have the facts in your favor, because jurors do not like asshole prosecutors, and they are surprisingly good at picking up on which lawyer is the asshole.

    Both your victims and defendants usually live in the same neighborhood, are poor, minority, uneducated. You have to take the extra time to get out into the community and get to know people there, whether through neighborhood activist groups, etc, so that you understand your victims and defendants (and potential jurors). It helps you so much in understanding their point of view and how to ask the right questions during testimony. You have to get to know your cops and inspectors, and if they sense you genuinely care about your case and in doing a good job, they will bend over backwards to help you (like convince a scared witness to testify—cops usually know the victims/defendants already), or give you advice on how to do a good job (they have watched plenty of trials to know).

    As Ex-Bitter pointed out–mock trial is totally different from real trial, real trial is not a controlled environment and case law is not what wins the day. You have to be okay with dismissing a case b/c of a bad search, or you know the cop on the case is completely sketchy, etc. A case is not about you, it’s about the facts. People who like to “win”, want to win at all costs, which may lead you to do unethical or even illegal things, all in the name of winning.

    I suggest you volunteer at some domestic violence shelters, restraining order clinics, and with some high schools that are in “the hood” (kids are a great source for understanding how many of your victims and defendants find their way to your courtroom). This is who you will be dealing with. If you feel that they are “losers” or less than you or that you are superman coming in to save the day, than you have no business being a prosecutor. The fact that winning was the first thing you mentioned tells me this is not for you.

  7. Elise Rhodes

    May 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan.
    I am a 15-year old girl who has been unsure in what I want as a career once I graduate from high school. With the economy bad, and jobs scarce and hard to land has made me uneasy and caution in what I want as a career. I always loved law, and have always had a lot of ambition towards it. Your advice has gave me confidence in what I really desire and want as a career: a prosecutor. I want justice for victims and punishment towards those who committ crimes. You are right. It should not always be about winning. I only wish to put those behind bars for the crimes which they committed. I only hope to help serve justice.

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