How to Become a Criminal Prosecutor

Getting a job in criminal prosecution is as close as it gets to not specializing in the legal industry. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 2,300 prosecutors’ offices in the United States. With more than 93,000 criminal cases filed annually in state and federal courts, there’s always a demand for prosecutors, and the position is commonly seen as a launching pad for other types of law career paths. That means there is a lot of turnover, and therefore a lot of opportunities for recent graduates to enter the field.

The work has a sort of glamour associated with it, courtesy of Law & Order and hundreds of other Hollywood renditions of cool and collected and attractive prosecutors at work, but it can be difficult and mundane at the entry level… hours and hours sitting in a courtroom processing dozens of petty larceny, trespassing, and minor drug offenses, endless forms to fill out, and a conveyor belt of repeat offenders to deal with.

For all that, it’s one of the most important jobs in the legal system. And it can lead to celebrity, immense personal satisfaction, and other careers in public service… a 2017 analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative found that a majority of state attorneys general had been prosecutors at some point, and in many cases so had either the governor or one of the state senators.

Whether you want to make a name for yourself or simply perform a valuable civic duty, prosecutorial work offers a path forward.

Criminal Prosecution is the Most Serious Business in Legal Work

Prosecutors bear the responsibility for protecting society by ensuring that criminals are held accountable for their crimes. But they also have the burden of proving their cases beyond a reasonable doubt, working within a system that is designed to protect the innocent first, and deliver punishment only when all possible questions have been answered.

That’s a significant challenge and one that requires potential prosecutors to gather evidence and build an iron-clad case around every charge. High ethical standards, attention to detail, and perseverance are all important qualities for lawyers in criminal prosecution jobs.

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Developing Criminal Cases Involves Detective Work

Prosecutors work in teams, leading a group of paralegals, investigators, and junior prosecutors in collaborative efforts to build cases. Although much of the initial work is performed by the police, that’s really just a starting point… the prosecutor has to take that evidence and tie it to a coherent legal theory, and usually develop further supporting evidence that will make it all stick in court.

That means further work with police departments, directing special investigators who work for the district attorney’s office, and sometimes interviewing witnesses or turning up additional physical evidence directly.

Prosecutors may draft formal complaints for filing with the courts, making motions for orders related to the case (requesting a summary judgement, for instance), and issue subpoenas for witness testimony.

Prosecutors also need to be adept in the art of negotiation. The truth is, for all the drama of televised court cases, only between three and seven percent of criminal cases ever go to trial. Most are settled with a plea bargain, negotiated between the prosecution and defense, agreeing to an acceptance of the charge in return for a nominal or reduced punishment.

But plea bargains aren’t easy; no defense attorney is going to let their client cop to a plea unless you have already put together a case that is unlikely to prevail in court.

Prosecutors Work at Every Level of the Legal System

Criminal prosecution jobs are open at all levels of the legal system, from the local city prosecutor’s office up to county district attorney’s to the high-powered precincts of federal United States attorneys. These offices are typically led by elected or appointed officials, but most of their staff consist of assistant or deputy district attorneys or line prosecutors who are hired into those positions, and who handle most of the casework.

Different states and jurisdictions have different responsibilities for the kinds of cases they will handle. Federal crimes are all prosecuted by the offices of U.S. Attorneys; in some states, all felony prosecutions are handled by county DAs, while city prosecutors may only take care of misdemeanor charges. It’s important to identify the type of cases you want to prosecute when you are considering what offices to apply with.

Larger prosecutor’s offices may break down into dedicated teams dealing with specific types of crimes, such as:

  • Organized crime and gang prosecutions
  • Homicide
  • Theft
  • Juvenile crimes
  • Drugs

Wherever you go, prosecutorial work is intense and demanding. The American justice system standard of beyond a reasonable doubt requires ironclad cases, with no margin for prosecutorial error. Prosecutors put in long hours chasing down every thread and nailing down every fact before they take cases to trial.

That’s effort that pays off, however; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, conviction rates among felony defendants approach 78 percent in American courts.

Preparing for a Career in Criminal Prosecution

As with any legal career, the more field-specific knowledge you can accumulate before you apply, the better off you will be when you start prosecuting cases.

That means volunteering or interning in prosecutors’ offices before or during your time in law school. Of course, it’s the greatest boost if you can actually get these positions in the same office you hope to apply to as a ground-level prosecutor, both so you can make contacts with the right people and also hit the ground running when hired, already familiar with the processes and procedures.

Although many criminal cases plead out, preparation for trial work will be an important part of your education as a prospective prosecutor. Many successful trial workers take courses in drama or elocution to improve their presentation skills to judges and juries.

Studies in psychology can also pay dividends for prosecutors, not only to understand the minds and motives of criminal defendants, but also to assist with the important voir dire process in empaneling a jury.

A strong familiarity with law enforcement and law enforcement procedures is also a plus for prosecutors. Since you’ll work closely with police and detectives, understanding the challenges that they face and the rules and limitations that govern their investigations will be helpful to you as you work with them to build cases.

Earning a Certification in Criminal Law

Since criminal law has developed into its own specialized area of practice in legal work, it can benefit you to pursue a certification in the field. The American Bar Association has accredited only one national organization to deliver those certifications, the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA). It was the first such accreditation offered by the ABA, and so the certification in Criminal Trial Law is perhaps the oldest and most respected national certification in legal work.

It’s not an easy one to earn, either. You’ll have to be a Bar member in good standing in your state of admission, with at least five years in actual practice of civil or criminal law. Additionally, you will need to have:

  • At least thirty percent of your practice time for three years dedicated to such work
  • Have spent at least 45 days in trial, performing all types of trial activities
  • Participated in at least 100 contested matters involved taking of testimony
  • Have substantial performances in those matters

You’ll also need at least 45 hours of continuing education specific to the field.

All that just qualifies you to take the test, which is rigorous and involves both knowledge and legal writing components. A number of peers must also attest to your experience and professionalism.

These states recognize the NBTA certification:

  • Alabama
  • Connecticut
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Maine
  • Minnesota
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee

There are also several state-level legal associations that offer their own certifications in various aspects of criminal law. Some also accept the NBTA certification; check your individual state for details: