Criminal Litigation Careers: The Federal Prosecutor
For the most part, federal prosecutors are concerned with violations of the United States Criminal Code, which includes crimes such as racketeering, wire fraud, civil rights violations, drug trafficking, securities violations, corruption by public officials, interstate fraud and certain types of robberies. Some crimes otherwise prosecuted under state law fall under the federal prosecutor's jurisdiction if they are interstate (like child kidnapping) or if they take place on federal property (an assault in a veteran's hospital, for example).
The federal prosecutor may work with state prosecutors in order bring a particular offender to justice. Alternatively, a federal prosecutor may have state charges dropped in order for a defendant to be brought in front of a federal court. Sometimes the aims of the federal and state prosecutor conflict and the politics of the different departments can decide fate of the accused.
A federal prosecutor prepares for trial much like a county prosecutor does, working with law enforcement personnel like the FBI, the sheriff's office and local state officials. In addition to meeting with witnesses, gathering and presenting the evidence, and building a persuasive case, federal prosecutors work extensively with prosecutors in other jurisdictions. The federal prosecutor is bound by the federal rules of procedure in court and, because the federal sentencing guidelines are extremely stringent, often has very little say in sentencing.
Many lawyers become federal prosecutors in order to facilitate large-scale change in their district. Because the job of a federal prosecutor can be very high-profile, it can also lead to public office, as it did for Rudolph Giuliani who, before serving as mayor of New York, was the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan responsible for the conviction of many notorious organized crime and white-collar crime figures. Some federal prosecutors move into private practice or are elected to a judgeship.
In order to become a federal prosecutor, you must have at least two years legal -- and usually litigation -- experience. Federal prosecutors often have a considerable amount of legal experience before joining the U.S. attorney's office. A significant and prominent interest in public service is also important and one of the things that prosecutors' offices look for. "You need to be willing to uphold the law, even if it means ignoring your personal feelings about whether the law is right," says one fourth-year federal prosecutor. The U.S. attorney's office also requires stringent background checks, multiple interviews, drug testing and, in some districts, even polygraph examinations. The U.S. attorney's office requires a commitment to the department for three years.
A U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York makes a starting salary of $70,000. Most districts pay less and some salaries start as low as $45,000. Advancement is based on experience and performance, and pay raises are usually fixed. As you continue to work in the prosecutor's office, you may be assigned to a particular division or task force (organized crime, for example). The federal prosecutor can work quite reasonable hours or around the clock when she is going to trial. The stakes are very high in federal prosecutions, and the sentences are usually higher than at the state level. While the work can be exciting, it can also be extremely stressful. Like their state counterparts, federal prosecutors face the ethical dilemmas inherent in our criminal justice system. "I wish it was black and white," says one first-year U.S attorney. "It's not. Most of the time I know I'm putting the bad guys away, but sometimes there's some doubt. And that can keep you up at night."