Prosecutors tend to come in two types: local and federal. A local prosecutor typically works for the county and represents the state in a criminal action against a private citizen. If you watch the television show Law & Order, you see New York County prosecutors depicted in action. An elected official, known in different states as the district attorney, state's attorney or prosecuting attorney, heads each office. A county prosecutor -- typically an assistant or deputy district attorney -- applies state laws and penalties to those accused of breaking the law. A prosecutor usually works in a particular division or bureau and might specialize in prosecuting a particular kind of crime -- for example, sex crimes, arson, homicide, violations against children or organized crime. In the beginning, a prosecutor handles small misdemeanor cases, as minor as jaywalking, avoiding a subway fare or petty theft. If she works on larger cases, she will probably be under the supervision of a senior prosecutor.
Federal prosecutors work for the U.S. attorney's office in a particular federal district. These attorneys are employees of the Department of Justice and enforce federal laws. A federal criminal case can arise where the crime took place on federally regulated property (for example, airports, Social Security offices, veterans' hospitals or federal parks), where the crime is specifically covered by federal jurisdiction (such as mail fraud or racketeering) or where the crime crosses state lines (stealing a car in New York and joyriding in Connecticut, for example). Federal prosecutors, like their local counterparts, can be responsible for a wide variety of cases and often specialize in one division.Most U.S. attorney's offices require that applicants have at least two years of prior legal experience, but you can become an assistant district attorney right out of law school. The salary for a county prosecutor is significantly lower than that of a federal prosecutor. While the life of any prosecutor can be exciting, it is not an easy job whether you work within the state or federal criminal justice system. "You have to be really dedicated to be a prosecutor," says a district attorney. "There's a whole lot of burnout."
The public defender is the government's counterpart to the state or federal prosecutor. Public defenders work either for the state or the federal government and represent those who cannot afford to retain their own defense attorney. As a result, the public defender often gets the cases that no one else wants.
Public defenders usually get courtroom experience very early in their career. A recent law school graduate who has passed the bar will almost immediately find himself in court defending petty thieves, drunken students and the like. Many new attorneys start at legal aid offices in order to gain valuable trial experience that they might never receive in a law firm environment. The public defender who becomes a private criminal defense attorney often has an in-depth knowledge of criminal law and procedure that his classmates who went straight into private practice will envy.
In addition to rich litigation experience, public defenders can take satisfaction in helping those who don't have the resources to help themselves. "I feel like I'm doing some good every time I go into court," says one particularly zealous public defender. "These are people that don't get the legal help that we give to everyone else. They're at the mercy of the system." Public defenders usually make salaries similar to their prosecutor counterparts and, even though they work long hours, their schedules are typically not as full as fellow graduates who went to corporate law firms. Public defenders face the same challenges as other government litigators, working with limited resources within a bureaucratic legal system.
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