Inside the District Attorney's Office

by | March 10, 2009

Maybe it's the courtroom dramas on TV and in the movies. Maybe it's the excitement of trying cases and putting away bad guys. Whatever the reason, every year future lawyers enter law school with dreams of becoming a prosecutor. But many of those dreams get sidetracked along the way and young lawyers find themselves doing research in a big firm library without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.

For many lawyers one of the largest obstacles to becoming an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) is the low pay compared to big law firms. "It's a great profession but you're never going to get rich." says Michael Conroy, an ADA at the Staten Island District Attorney's office. Beginning Assistant District Attorneys in smaller offices start off with salaries in the low 30s, according to Jim Polley, the Director of Government Affairs at the National District Attorney Association. Of course ADAs make more in larger cities. For example, a lawyer starting in the LA District Attorney's Office will pull in around $49,000 and then get bumped up to $57,000 for their second year. In contrast, some firms in LA are paying first year associates $125,000.

Although law students who choose the prosecutor route may be able to get forgiveness of their Perkins Loan, working for the DA is still not financially feasible for many law students. "It's getting awfully tough with high cost of legal education," Polley says.

Getting hired at many of the nation's DA's offices is no easy task either. Unlike law firms which hire law students before they have even left law school, to apply for a job with the LA District Attorney's office applicants must already be a member of the California Bar, according to the office's recruitment coordinator, Cathy Musick. Other requirements to be an ADA in Los Angeles include completion of a criminal law elective or advanced criminal law course, participation in a moot court or trial advocacy course and experience as a public defender or clerk for a trial court.

~Those who make the first cut will then be interviewed by two high level Deputy DAs. These interviews are not necessarily the casual chats to which law firm interviewees may be accustomed. The interviewers present the applicants with two hypotheticals to make the lawyers think on their feet. "Its pretty rigorous," Ms. Musick says. Two or three ADAs conduct the next round of interviews. If they don't ding the applicant, the District Attorney will conduct the third interview himself and make the final decision.

The Los Angeles DA office usually hires around 50 lawyers from the approximately 500 applications it receives every year, according to Musick. "The candidate pool has consistently been pretty good," she said.

The reward for making it through this process is the opportunity to be in the courtroom almost every day. "It is the exception when you don't go to court," says David Traumis, Head District Attorney for the Compton Branch of the LA office. During an ADA's first years they will prosecute misdemeanors and may handle the preliminary hearings for felonies, according to Traumis. By the second or third year, they're doing felony trials. "It can be a challenge for a young attorney because you're often up against more seasoned attorneys," Traumis says.

For many, being an ADA offers far more than just trial experience. Traumis describes working for the District Attorney's office as "the cleanest practice of law." Conroy put it this way: "There is a tremendous sense of job satisfaction to be able to say to a victim... there is going to be justice. It's quite uplifting."

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