Monday, November 14, 2011

How to Become an Assistant District Attorney

I remember the days as a law student and an intern. Working at a firm as a law clerk, attending firm functions hoping one of the lawyer's took a shine to me and offered me a job. Praying someone gave me a job, any job. I have all these loans after all!

And I made a promise when I took my first job, that I would offer as much help as possible to any student or intern who sought it. It is a dark road that no one understands.  There was not much assistance when I tried to figure out what jobs to apply for and ultimately accept (I had two offers!).

As an aid to those in law school or those making the switch to criminal law, I thought I'd provide a little guidance on how to become an ADA:

1) Seek out the areas you want to live in and then apply to all the DA's offices around there. Do not apply to just one in the hopes they hire you. New York City DA's offices hire 40-50 new attorneys a year out of thousands of applications. Smaller counties may not even hire one a year out of thousands of applications.

2) Study some criminal law. I've conducted interviews and read many resumes. The ones that stand out show some interest in criminal law. It is a tough legal economy causing increased applications to every DA's office. Applicants who normally would seek out law firms and never studied any criminal law are now applying. No one begrudges a law student applying to many places to land a job, but you should show at least some interest in the position.

3) Mock trial, trial team, and trial technique classes are important. While these are structured (read - fictional and rehearsed) settings it demonstrates you like to be in a courtroom.

4) Intern at a DA's office. We remember the interns who completed projects on time, asked for feedback, and played on the softball team.

5) How important are grades? Thankfully, not critically important as long as you distinguish yourself in some other way. I was hired in a New York City office as an average student (mostly Bs with some As thrown in). I didn't win any awards for my scholarship. My resume and experience (mock trial, internship, criminal law job during law school) got me in the door. I showed them in the interview how well I relate to people. It's what the job's about after all.

6) Do you need to know someone? I didn't, but it can't hurt.  It doesn't always help and it's usually overdone. I just read a cover letter today that dropped ten names, declared the applicant's political party, and violated every piece of the next rule.

7) Resume and cover letter - Use clear, concise, grammatically correct, and active sentences. Does this need to be said?

8) Research the office's structure, programs, and statistics before the interview so you can use the information during the interview.

9) Send handwritten thank you notes. Yes, things like this still matter.

10) Don't be afraid to follow-up. Just not too soon. Give it a week after your interview at least. Remember in small counties there are at least twenty people interviewed for every position. In major cities, that number swells to a thousand. Give them time to conduct the interviews, but not too much time so they forget you.

There are a thousand more items to discuss, but this is the nuts and bolts. Write a comment with a specific question andI I'll do my best to answer it. Or just send an email.

Check back later this week to see my journey to becoming an ADA and the qualities that make a successful ADA.

24 comments:

  1. Hmm. I graduated top half of my class from a Tier 1 law school. I won two trial advocacy competitions, competed in moot court, and obtained top grades in Evidence and Criminal Trial Practice. I am admitted to 3 bars. I have 6 years of public and private criminal defense experience, and I have first chaired numerous criminal bench and jury trials not to mention a few appeals. I have hit up every prosecution office in the state incl city prosecutors, repeatedly over the past few years, and I have never been able to land an interview.

    I think they are looking for something more than what I can offer, but I just don't know what it is.

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  2. You should email me if you are interested in New York State. Those credentials sound good to me.

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  3. Hi,

    I attend law school in Chicago and have been working at the Cook County State's Attorney's Office for the past year. I have always planned on working there, but it looks like there is a good chance my husband may be transferred to New York for his job (and I would go with him!). The deadline has passed for applying to the DA's office. What do you recommend for other possible gov jobs, and for applying with the DA's office in the future? Thanks!

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    1. Email me at prosecutorsdiscretion@gmail.com with where you would be moving and what year you are in.

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  4. I am scheduled for a panel interview (2nd round) with the Bronx D.A. Any tips? Great blog by the way. I read at least 12 entries before my first interview. It was very helpful. I understand that their will be hypos, and the most ethical answer always prevails.

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    1. Sure - 3 person panel who are usually the most senior ADAs. They want to see how well you think on your feet. Learn as much as you can about the Bronx (or anywhere you interview), crime rates, how an Assistant moves through the ranks, what bureau you want to go into. Remember, everyone wants to hire someone who will be in the job for the long term and that they would be willing to work with. Show how you are always willing to help colleagues while zealously prosecuting crimes.

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    2. is zealousness really what you want to demonstrate? it's not exactly the ethical requirement. (not a rhetorical question).

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    3. You want to show that you are diligent, passionate, and devoted to prosecution. Which means both ways - when there is a substantiated allegation, do your absolute best for the case and victim, and when there is an unfounded charge or an innocent defendant, be able to make difficult decisions and have difficult conversations with victims about why we cannot prosecute a case and also correct the wrongs.

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  5. I go to Elmira College in upstate New York although I am from a town in PA. I am a history major as the school does not offer a pre-law major,, but have taking a few criminal justice classes and other law classes. I want to work in the District Attorney's office New York City one day or some where very close. I am looking to intern at a DA's office next summer or next spring. Would it be bad idea to try to intern at the DA's office in Elmira or at home when I do not want to work in near either one? It would be difficult for me to intern in NYC.

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    1. Absolutely. Do an internship to make sure you like it, get experience, and make you marketable in the field you want to go into. Do it in Elmira or wherever you can.

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  6. I am a recent high school graduate (graduated one semester early) and am looking into possibly pursuing a career as an ADA or a DA (girl can hope, right?). However, I am currently at a community college that does not offer pre-law or very many classes in that regard. What do you suggest I do?

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    1. I tell all aspiring attorneys that pre-law is the worst major before law school. Take classes in finance, business, economics, science, or something else to get knowledge about other topics before law school. If you want to sample pre-law classes, take just a few.

      Now, I understand there are no pre-law classes available at your place. If you want to sample some, take some U.S. history, government classes, and maybe even a class involving a long critiqued research paper.

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  7. I just stumbled across your blog and might I add I love it. I'm a freshman philosophy major at a 4 year university in texas. I've always had a interest in criminal law and my question is. Will being a philosophy major direct me in the right path or should I switch to another major such as finance or economics?

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    1. Philosophy is something good to have knowledge of because it will help you understand the law and its origins. But a degree in it does not give you practical skills. You can get into law school with a philosophy degree, but if you decide not to go or do not get in, you really don't have much to fall back on. If you love it, I'm loath to tell you to switch, but can you minor in it? Dual major?

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  8. Sometimes I believe that you can have too much experience. I am an attorney with 16 years of practice (all but 3 in the public sector). I a former ADA who left the office 8 years ago to pursue other legal opportunities in the government sector. I have decided to go back into prosecution, but I feel that my experience and years of practice are working against me. "...why hire me when you can hire two individuals coming out of a judicial clerkship at the same price?"

    Nonetheless, I am not giving up. I just had an interview this week with a different DA's office than the one that I formerly worked in. The interview was with two supervisors in the trial section & they let me know that this is just the 1st stage, but they'll report their observations & comments to the 1st Assistant. The interview was just as you described above, the questions asked were how to see how well I thought on my feet. I sent the handwritten thank you notes. I really want to seal the deal. Any advice please? I am open to all suggestions...

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    1. DA offices are constrained by budgets. It's why they would rather hire a recent grad than a 10 year experienced attorney. My advice is to keep reaching out to personal contacts you have. You have to show them why you are worth the money. How does your experience better the office?

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  9. I am a (rising) 2l, and I was primarily targeting private practice (big law) in order to pay off loans. I received a scholarship increase that will now allow me to pursue public service and still pay off my loans. I am extremely interested in an ADA position or a criminal law prosecuting position. I am currently working as an RA for a well known criminal law professor. ADA and prosecuting positions are extremely selective now, so I am afraid if I just target those positions, then I risk being unemployed. However, I fear if I take a job with a firm at OCI, then I wont have a chance at an ADA or prosecuting position as my loyalty to public service will be questioned. Do you have any suggestions of how I should proceed?

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    1. This will be a long reply and probably better over email. Short answer is that we understand the need for you to get a job. We routinely hire people from civil firms. Even when at the firm, if you still want to be an ADA, do volunteer work and pro bono work. That will show your commitment. For more email me at prosecutorsdiscretion@gmail.com

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  10. I appreciate your commitment to giving advice to those searching for jobs; it is indeed a dark road. Like many others, I write to ask for advice.

    I am a 2L, and I have landed an interview with a large DA's office for a summer internship. I feel I am prepared for a substantive hypothetical (I have taken Evidence and Criminal Procedure, and I just finished a stint as a Criminal Law TA--a great refresher). My concern lies in my lack of experience with moot court or trial team. I interned with a PD's office this past semester, and I may have an internship with a DA's office for the upcoming semester. As a 1L, I had clear reasons for not trying out for a team, but now I worry I may have hindered my chances at getting an internship or a job post-graduation. Do you have any advice on (a) how to handle inquiries about this particular lack of experience, and (b) how to make up for this for this lack as I move forward?

    Thank you for any insight you may have.

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    1. Congratulations on the interview. That's usually the hardest step. Do not worry about not trying out for trial team or doing moot court. There is no magic formula they are looking for. The primary concern I look for when interviewing candidates is how they relate to people. Can you demonstrate your ability to connect with people in every walk of life? You obviously are very interested in criminal law and that will show. Remember, the job is not about you, it's about the people you'll be serving and you have to show the interviewer how much you understand that.

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  11. I was wondering how DA offices look at applicants coming in from another field. I have 5 years of working with a small private firm doing mostly bankruptcy, including about a year of general practice, including a handful of criminal defense. My salary is definitely on the low end though, so the DA offices could easily match it. (My employer is semi-notorious for hiring recent grads on the cheap.)

    To give an example--keep in mind that I do not live in New York, okay-- I make $55k even, and a nearby city is offering an entry level Ass't DA position with a hiring range of $55,713- $90,891. I'd love to apply for it, but I'd like to know how I would be viewed versus applicants out of law school. Unlike many of them, I have not had an internship with a DA or court clerkship, so no direct prosecution experience.

    Would my unrelated experience even be much help? What would you be looking for in a cover letter/interview from such an applicant?

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  12. It depends on the office.The advantage you have over others is that you know what you want to do. Most DA offices hire people out of law school and then those people are trained and leave after much time and resources were poured into them.

    You just have to show them how your experience is an advantage. You have experience doing criminal law on the defense side, which is always a positive. You have already seen the adversaries to know what is going on with a defense attorney and client. You probably write and argue better than ADAs who never worked in the private sector. Explain how great your legal research and writing abilities are and how your private sector experience will help you build an intensive investigation. Think of the paralells to draw between the careers.

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  13. Hi im a highschool graduate from chicago with the hope of someday becoming a ADA. I know that i should choose a major to fall back on if i do not get into law school for any reason. The career i would prefer other than ada would be therapist or social worker, would me getting a 4 year degree in social work or psychology lower my chances of getting into law school or would i still have a good chance ?

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    1. Your undergrad major does not matter when applying for law school as long as you get good grades and do well on the LSAT, together with your activities. It is probably a good idea to join some legal clubs or mock trial groups too. A bacheler's in psych will not go far if you do not go to law school. You need an advanced degree to do anything with it. The same probably goes for social work too. Thanks for reading and the comment!

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