Law students interested in getting into the courtroom and trying cases right out of law school should consider becoming a prosecutor, speakers told students recently.
An entry-level prosecutor usually will start out handling misdemeanor cases, then will move on to more serious cases in areas such as traffic, juvenile, or narcotics court, said Andrew Varga, ’87 J.D., assistant state’s attorney and Consumer Fraud Unit supervisor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Varga was one of the panelists at the Careers in Prosecution talk, part of Notre Dame Law School’s Public Interest Week , who shared their experiences, advice, and the paths they took pursuing their own careers in prosecution and criminal law.
After a few years, ASAs are promoted to investigate and prosecute felonies such as robbery, rape, and ultimately homicides, Varga said.
“Working as a new prosecutor also offers an opportunity to make an impact on the community and seek justice for victims,” said Michael Zientara, ’16 J.D., (who will be sworn in as an assistant state’s attorney with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in January 2017).
Day-to-day work for a prosecutor includes pre-trial preparation such as meeting with detectives, examining evidence, interviewing and preparing witnesses, taking statements, making charging decisions, and then trying the case in court, the panelists said.
In larger cities, a prosecutor may later specialize in a unit such as special victims, gang crimes, or homicide, Varga said.
New ADAs in her office are usually assigned to the trial, narcotics, or appeals division, said Nicole Cabezas Lamb, ’13 J.D, assistant district attorney, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors have the best highs and the lowest lows in a job, said Chris Kozelichki, ’08, deputy prosecuting attorney, St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office. He previously worked in the special-victims unit of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and had tried several rape and molestation cases.
“Sometimes you will lose a case and that is very disappointing, but when you work a case hard and a victim receives justice by a defendant pleading guilty you will never feel better,” Kozelichki said.
“You go into this job — and you stay in this job — because you want to speak for those who are not heard,” he said.
All of the panelists said that students interested in working as a prosecutor should intern during the summer or school year for a district attorney’s office, where they have the opportunity to spend large blocks of time gaining trial experience. This is a great way to figure out if prosecution is truly the right fit, and provides an outstanding source of networking, they agreed.
“I jumped right in on my first day and assisted with an arraignment,” said Katherine Forbes, 3L, who was an intern last summer at the San Diego District Attorney’s Office.
Forbes went on to work on an attempted-murder case of an undercover police officer, and prepped and qualified a gang-expert witness. She took initiative and, with counsel supervision, was able to do as much as she wanted on cases, she said.
“During your internship go in and do good work for your ADA, put forth your very best effort to gain as much knowledge and experience as you can,” Zientara said.
The NDLS federal work study and law school funding programs will provide summer funding for up to 90 students who accept unpaid summer internships with public interest or government employers.
What classes you take can also be important. Lamb took classes on criminal law and trial advocacy and did two internships in district attorney’s offices over two summers to prepare for her career, she said.
Substantial loan repayment programs help make public service and government careers financially viable for new attorneys.
Most summer public service clerkships are not paid, and the pay for prosecutor jobs is lower than those who pursue big firm opportunities, but graduates who pursue this career can effectively reduce their law school debt, Zientara said.
Loan repayment programs make it possible for him to pursue his dream of being a prosecutor, he said.
The NDLS Loan Repayment Program gives money to the graduates in the form of a loan. The student uses those funds to pay their own law school debts as long as they maintain a certain income level and continue to work in a public service position. The loan is forgiven after three years.
Graduates can also use the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program in addition to the LRAP. This program eliminates the remaining balance on a student’s loan after they have made 120 qualifying payments and worked in a public interest position during the time they were making the 120 qualifying payments.
The Career Development Office is hosting Public Interest Month, which consists of a series of afternoon discussions that will expose students to careers in the nonprofit and government sectors.