Duties: Conduct criminal proceedings on behalf of the government; enforce laws; may handle civil litigation
Alternate Title(s): Prosecuting Attorney; a title that reflects a specific job such as District Attorney, County Prosecutor, or Assistant U.S. Attorney
Salary Range: $46,000 to $119,000, for federal prosecutors
Employment Prospects: Good
Advancement Prospects: Good
Education or Training - A law (J.D.) degree
Experience - One or more years of experience as a practicing lawyer; previous litigation experience preferred
Special Skills and Personality Traits - Research, writing, communication, interpersonal, self-management skills; be enthusiastic, intelligent, responsible, creative, persistent, flexible
Special Requirements - States require lawyers to be admitted to their state bar; federal courts require registration for lawyers to practice
Law Student, Law Clerk, or Attorney >> Prosecutor >> Senior or Supervisory Prosecutor
Prosecutors are government lawyers who take legal action against individuals or groups on behalf of governmental bodies. They engage in both criminal and civil litigation. Some also handle appeals cases in appellate courts. In the United States, Prosecutors are employed at the local, state, and federal levels of government.
Most Prosecutors are involved in enforcing criminal laws. They are responsible for proving that criminal defendants, whether charged with felony or misdemeanor offenses, are guilty of committing crimes. Their job includes issuing criminal charges against suspects. In some jurisdictions, criminal Prosecutors present the information to grand juries, which decide whether there is sufficient proof to charge suspects.
Some Prosecutors are assigned to the civil unit in prosecuting offices. These lawyers are responsible for defending governmental bodies, whether as plaintiffs or defendants, in civil law suits. Their cases involve a wide range of disputes, including environmental, employment, property, tax, contracts, and personal injury matters, among others. Civil Prosecutors may also be assigned to provide general legal advice to governmental officials or agencies. They perform such duties as reviewing legal documents for officials or helping officials draft proposed laws or ordinances.
The job of Prosecutors is complex and demanding. They carry a heavy caseload, and must make sure that the legal process is followed for every case. They might work on a case alone or with other Prosecutors.
Prosecutors perform various tasks while preparing for criminal or civil litigation. For example, they gather information about the facts and issues by reviewing legal documents and records related to their cases and by conducting legal research. They collect physical evidence and interview witnesses and others that may support their cases. They prepare pretrial motions and briefs, meet necessary court deadlines, and attend required pretrial hearings and conferences. Prosecutors also develop strategies to build up the best case against the other party, as well as ready all legal documents and demonstrative evidence for the trials.
Either judges or juries may hear criminal or civil cases. All judges have their own specific set of procedures that attorneys are expected to follow. The trial process is generally the same for both civil and criminal trials. In a jury trial, attorneys of both parties participate in selecting the jurors as well as make suggestion for jury instructions.
The trial starts with opening statements by the Prosecutor and the defense attorney, in which each side describes what each expects to prove in the trial. Both sides present their case through direct examination of their witnesses and introduction of physical evidence. Each side may crossexamine the other side’s witnesses, as well as make appropriate objections to testimony, evidence, and other matters. After presenting their sides, the Prosecutor and the defense attorney make their closing statements.
Generally most cases do not reach the trial stage. Civil Prosecutors are often able to negotiate settlements with the other parties. Plea bargains are usually made between criminal Prosecutors and the defense lawyers. Prosecutors offer to issue a lesser charge, if a defendant agrees to plead guilty to that charge. The defendant then receives a lesser form of punishment, such as a shorter jail or prison sentence.
Federal prosecution is done by the assistant U.S. attorneys of the U.S. Attorneys’ Office (USAO), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. These prosecuting attorneys handle both civil and criminal litigation for the federal government. Criminal Prosecutors handle cases that involve violations of the U.S. Criminal Code, such as bank robberies, counterfeiting, civil rights violations, interstate child support cases, immigration violations, and certain violent crimes.
Prosecutors at the state government level are known as assistant state attorneys. These Prosecutors are employed by their state Attorney General’s office. At the county level, Prosecutors are part of the District Attorney (or County Prosecuting Attorney) offices. These offices prosecute defendants who have committed state offenses within their jurisdiction; they also provide legal counsel and representation to county officers and departments. County Prosecutors are known as assistant district attorneys (or assistant prosecuting attorneys).
Many city governments employ Prosecutors, also known as assistant city attorneys. These government lawyers handle civil matters as well as criminal misdemeanors and violations against city ordinances.
Chief prosecutors are either appointed by an executive body or elected by the people. For example, U.S. attorneys, the heads of district USAO offices, are appointed by the president of the United States; district attorneys, county officials, are usually elected by the voters in their counties. The heads usually receive a limited term appointment, which may be renewed through reappointment or re-election.
Staff prosecuting attorneys in all government offices are selected through regular hiring processes. Their jobs are not affected when new head Prosecutors are appointed or elected to office.
Prosecutors often put in more than 40 hours a week to perform their various duties. Some Prosecutors are hired on a part-time basis or to temporary positions.
Salaries for Prosecutors vary, depending on such factors as their experience, job duties, employer, and geographical location. According to the 2006 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report by NALP, the median salaries for local prosecuting attorneys ranged from $43,915 (for entry-level lawyers) to $72,970 (for lawyers with 11 to 15 years experience). For state prosecuting attorneys, the median salaries ranged from $46,374 (for entry-level lawyers) to $67,712 (for lawyers with 11 to 15 years experience).
U.S. assistant attorneys earn salaries based on the Administratively Determined pay scale. Information about this pay scale is unavailable, but it is about equivalent to the General Schedule (GS) scale, another federal pay schedule. Prosecuting attorneys earn salaries similar to the GS-11 to GS-15 levels. In 2006, the basic pay for these levels ranged from $46,189 to $118,957. Federal employees also receive locality pay that is based on the geographical location where they work. Those living in areas with higher living costs typically earn higher wages.
Most job openings become available as Prosecutors retire, resign, or transfer to other positions. An agency may create new positions when funding is available. More opportunities are available at the local level, where the turnover rate is higher.
Employers usually require candidates to be U.S. citizens. Candidates must also submit to a selection process that may include written exams, oral interviews, drug testing, background checks, and polygraph examinations.
Prosecutors can advance to supervisory and administrative positions, depending on the size and needs of the office.
Many Prosecutors seek advancement in terms of being assigned more complex cases, earning higher pay, and receiving recognition from peers and the public. This may involve obtaining positions in other government offices.
Prosecutors can also pursue careers in private law firms, corporate law departments, or with other government agencies. In addition, they can pursue other legal-related career paths by becoming judges, law librarians, FBI special agents, and politicians.
Education and Training
Employers require that Prosecutors have a juris doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association.
All new Prosecutors receive orientation training as well as learn on the job. Employers provide in-house or other training programs.
To practice law in a state (or U.S. territory or Washington, D.C.), lawyers must first gain admission to that state’s bar. For specific eligibility information, contact the bar admission office for the jurisdiction where you wish to practice.
To practice in federal courts, attorneys must apply for admission. Each court has its own set of requirements.
Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits
Requirements vary with the different employers. In general, most employers prefer to hire candidates who have one or more years of experience after graduation from law school. They also look for candidates with previous litigation experience. In addition, they show an interest in public service.
To succeed in their profession, Prosecutors need excellent research, writing, and communication skills. Interpersonal skills are also essential, as lawyers must work well with colleagues, clients, judges, and others. In addition, they need strong self-management skills - such as the ability to prioritize and organize tasks, and work well under stress. Being enthusiastic, intelligent, responsible, creative, persistent, and flexible are a few personality traits that successful Prosecutors share.
Unions and Associations
Prosecutors belong to various bar associations to take advantage of networking opportunities and other professional services and resources. In some states, attorneys are required to be members of the state bar association. Many Prosecutors join national bar associations such as the American Bar Association. They also join special interest groups such as the Federal Bar Association, the National District Attorneys Association, the National Criminal Justice Association, or the American Association fo Justice.
Tips for Entry
1. To begin exploring a career as a Prosecutor, contact the city or county Prosecutor’s office in your area. Some offices sponsor education programs for high school and middle school students.
2. Gain experience by interning or volunteering in a Prosecutor’s office. Contact local, state, and federal Prosecutor offices for internship possibilities and how to apply.
3. To learn more about the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, visit its Web site at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao. For information about employment, go to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management Web site at http://www.usdoj.gov/oarm.
4. Many local and state Prosecutor offices have Web pages on the Internet. To find some Web pages, use such keywords as prosecuting attorney, city prosecutor, county prosecutor, district attorney, or state attorney general.