Offices charged with the prosecution of criminal cases exist at the federal, state, and local level. At the state and local level, prosecutors work in District Attorney’s Offices and in the criminal division of state Attorney General’s Offices. At the federal level, prosecuting attorneys work both at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC and at U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country.
Local District Attorney’s Offices are organized by county. The District Attorney is often an elected official. Larger offices may have specialized units focusing on areas such as homicide, narcotics, juvenile prosecution, domestic violence, and appellate work.
As in a public defender office, new attorneys rapidly acquire comprehensive criminal trial experience. From the beginning, an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) assumes significant case responsibilities and appears in court. A new ADA usually starts out by handling misdemeanors and straightforward felonies. Further down the line, he or she takes on more complex cases, often exercising broad prosecutorial discretion with regard to the way cases are conducted.
Prior criminal trial experience is not a prerequisite to being hired as an ADA, although students who have done a summer internship or clinical externship in a prosecutor’s office and/or completed course work in criminal law or trial advocacy will present a stronger application for permanent positions. Some offices require a two- or three-year commitment for employment. Starting salaries can range from $35,000 to $90,000, varying considerably according to county and state.
State Attorneys General
In most states, the Attorney General’s (AG) Office has a criminal division that investigates and prosecutes cases of statewide significance. Assistant Attorneys General often work closely with District Attorney’s Offices and other government agencies in areas such as organized and white collar crime, narcotics, and criminal enforcement of environmental protection laws. Most offices also have criminal appellate divisions that handle criminal appeals and post-conviction litigation. Starting salaries for lawyers in an AG’s office vary widely from state to state and can range from $35,000 to $60,000 or more.
U.S. Department of Justice
Responsibility for the prosecution of federal crimes is shared by the U.S. Department of Justice based in Washington, DC (often referred to as Main Justice, Justice Department, or DOJ) and U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country. Most of Main Justice’s criminal cases are prosecuted by the Criminal Division, which has sections specializing in fraud, narcotics, organized crime, and terrorism, among other areas. The Tax, Civil Rights, and Antitrust Divisions of Main Justice also handle some criminal prosecutions in their substantive areas.
Most prosecutors in Main Justice work in Washington, DC, although they may travel throughout the United States to prosecute individual cases. The Criminal and Antitrust Divisions also have a limited number of attorneys working in branch offices in different cities.
In addition to prosecuting individual cases, attorneys for Main Justice provide policy and logistical support to U.S. Attorney’s offices, coordinate certain nationwide law enforcement initiatives, and respond to requests for information and assistance from Congress and other departments and agencies within the Executive Branch. Salaries at the entry level start at about $55,700 for attorneys working in Washington, DC and can be higher for those coming from clerkships.
U.S. Attorney’s Offices
Ninety-three U.S. Attorneys, one for each federal judicial district, manage the bulk of federal criminal prosecutions and serve as field officers for the DOJ. U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President. All other attorney positions in a U.S. Attorney’s Office, are by law, non-political.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) gain extensive criminal trial experience in the federal courts. Specialized units in U.S. Attorney’s Offices deal with issues such as drug enforcement, economic crime, and organized crime. Some offices have separate appellate divisions. U.S. Attorney’s Offices work closely with other federal government agencies, such as the FBI, the Department of Labor, and the IRS.
For a permanent position, previous litigation experience is almost always a prerequisite. One path to the position of AUSA consists of three to six years litigating at a private firm. U.S. Attorney’s Offices have come to serve as the most popular “escape hatches” for mid-level associates seeking to leave a practice in a large urban firm; consequently, the selection process for AUSA positions is quite competitive. AUSAs are also frequently hired out of District Attorney’s Offices, state Attorney General’s Offices and federal agencies. In rare instances, individuals who have pursued judicial clerkships are hired directly by a U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A candidate’s work experience, academic record, extracurricular activities, references and interview performance are taken into account for hiring purposes. Starting salaries typically begin at about $46,000 – $90,000, depending on locality pay and experience. (Attorneys hired by U.S. Attorney’s Offices are compensated under an Administratively Determined pay scale, separate from the General Schedule or “GS” pay scale used by other federal agencies.) U.S. Attorney’s Offices offer unpaid summer internships for law students.