Advice for Interviewing for a Prosecutor Position

Many of my students want to become prosecutors. Since I used to be a deputy district attorney, some of these students visit me before their interviews with local prosecutors’ offices, seeking advice.

To the extent that this advice is any good, I see no need to limit it to Santa Clara students. So, for what they are worth, following are the suggestions that I offer. As caveats, I suspect that other, better, advice exists elsewhere on the Internet; and while much of the text below is uncontroversial, others may disagree with some of what I write.  Finally, I should add that portions of this advice probably also apply to interviews with local public defenders’ offices, though I lack personal knowledge on this point.

To save space on this blog’s face page, I’ll relate my advice after the jump.

1) Prepare for a panel interview.  Unlike most interviews with law firms, in which single attorneys meet with you seriatim, interviews with district-attorney offices may consist of “panel” interviews in which three or four members of the law enforcement community (or beyond) will talk with you at once. “Members of the law enforcement community (or beyond)” connotes that police chiefs, investigators, administrators, probation officers, or maybe even public defenders may sit on the panel, in addition to attorneys from the prosecutor’s office.

What are the implications of this point? Well, in addition to making sure that you don’t inadvertently ignore any member of the panel by failing to make eye contact with them, you have to deliver a presentation that’s appropriate to your audience. If you have a representative of the police on your panel, don’t characterize police officers as dumb, out of control, in need of constant guidance, or indulge in other stereotypes. Trust me, as you sit there, that officer will know much more than you do about many areas of the law. And while you shouldn’t demonize or mock defense attorneys in any event–recall that district attorneys work closely with public defenders, that most district attorneys appreciate that defense attorneys have difficult jobs, and that it’s always better to be a bit too positive in your interview, than to be perceived as someone who sends out hater vibes–you definitely shouldn’t do so if a public defender is on your panel. Also, since you may have someone from the local probation department in the room, you should know what probation departments actually do before your interview (something that law schools aren’t necessarily that great in communicating to students).

2) Prepare for substantive questions. Back when I was a law student, interviews with law firms were extremely informal (especially compared to the interviews for management consultant positions that I had endured as an undergraduate; I still recall being presented with a calculator at the start of one of those sessions, and being told, “You’ll need this”). It seemed like 50 percent of these conversations, at least, dwelled on the material found within the “Additional Information” section at the bottom of my resume.

Not so with interviews with prosecutors’ offices, which tend to be more substantive. You’ll certainly be asked, “Why do you want to become a prosecutor?” (And here you should have a very good answer at the ready, one better than “I need a job,” or “What’s a prosecutor?”)  And you’ll probably also be asked a couple of hypothetical questions.

These hypotheticals can take the form of law-school criminal procedure fact patterns, in which, after the recitation of the facts, the call of the question is simply, “The officer calls you at home, asking what she should do–what do you tell her?,” ethical matters (“[X]: Do you disclose this fact to the defense?”), or questions that go to your views as to the merits of the underlying substantive law.  As an example of a question that falls within the last of these categories, in California, you might be asked for your opinion about a hypothetical case that implicates the Three Strikes law, or another serious enhancement.

Here’s one hint, with all of these hypothetical questions: While it’s nice to see that you, the interviewee, already know the substantive law and can hit the ground running, the interviewers also are trying to understand how you resolve problems when you don’t know the answer.  If you have no clue, it’s not a terrible concession to say something like, “Knowing only the facts presented in the question, I would be thinking, first, [X].  But I also could see the problems with that approach, among them, [Y]. Before deciding on a specific course of action, I would try to contact one of my colleagues in the office to see if they had encountered a similar situation, and what advice they might offer.” If your questioners press you (as by saying, “No one is around to answer” or, “You have to give advice, or not, right then and there–the situation won’t wait”), then take your best stab at a specific answer. But by explaining that you wouldn’t necessarily fly by the seat of your pants, you’re reassuring your interviewers that you are, on balance, less likely than other candidates to lead them to grief (see Point Number Three, immediately below)

3) Anticipate your interviewers’ needs.  This is, I think, the most important piece of advice that I give.  My sense is that an interviewer from a local prosecutor’s office, upon meeting a candidate, is asking her- or himself four basic, self-interested questions:

a) Will I (or my present colleagues) be happy to interact with this person on a daily basis?

b) Is this person capable of doing the job, which, again, will make my life easier, and thus happier? (Notice that I did NOT frame this question as, “Is this person a superstar?”)

c) Is this person going to have to be fired in six months (for any reason), or otherwise make my life more difficult?

d) Is this person going to quit in six months, such that I’m going to be sitting in this exact same chair within a year, interviewing their successor?

As to any particular interview, the interviewer may distill these questions to more discrete, unspoken thoughts such as “Can I put this candidate in front of a jury?,” “Will this candidate maintain the office’s ethical standards?,” or “Will this candidate happily accept a hand-off case, the day before it’s scheduled to go to trial?”

This simple, self-interested emphasis means if you avoid giving off signs that you are any of the following, you will position yourself ahead of 70 percent of applicants:

- Angry. There are a lot of angry people out there, and some of them are probably prosecutors.  But there is a difference between “dedicated” and “angry.” The former is good; the latter, not so much so. “Unhappy” is also a bad trait to communicate; prosecutors work closely with one another, and it’s not a plus to telegraph that you’re likely to become the office sad sack.

So, you know, smile. Even if you get asked an obnoxious question, smile.

- Lazy. This is another third rail.  Prosecutors’ offices are always trying to sniff out potential hires who, once they get the job, will strain to avoid going to trial (or do other hard work). Trials can be difficult, and stressful; some prosecutors love them, others don’t. Back when I was a prosecutor, I heard stories about other offices in which longtime prosecutors were so afraid of taking a case to trial that they would plea-bargain a case down way, way too aggressively. Interviewers have heard these stories, too (or maybe even worked with these people), and you don’t want to be That Person.

-  Indifferent.  This category overlaps with “lazy.” Some prosecutors’ offices can handle enormous turnover, but this sort of churn always disrupts the office and its affairs. Just like new associates at law firms, junior prosecutors have to receive training, and get better over time. During a prosecutor’s first several months, he or she may not be a huge asset to the office. Unsurprisingly, then, if your interviewer gets the sense that you’re just applying for a position because it showed up on your school’s “Available Jobs” board, suggesting that you’re likely to jump ship in four months once something better comes along, you’re probably not going to get the job.

In this vein, when first- and second-year students who say that they definitely want to become district attorneys ask me how they should tailor their summer or semester internships to maximize the odds of receiving such a position, I tell them, “If you want to be a prosecutor, be a prosecutor.” In other words, if you are convinced you want to be a DA, you should do internships with District Attorney, U.S. Attorney, or Attorney General offices; indeed, do as many as you can. That way, when you ultimately apply for a permanent paid position, the interviewers don’t have to guess at your commitment, or merely weigh your assertions of dedication against the comparable statements that all of your competitors will utter.  Instead, your resume will make the depth of your commitment obvious.

- Entitled. Do you want a 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (or 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) law job? Look elsewhere. The work schedules for prosecutors and defense attorneys have peaks and valleys. Expect to work weekends and late nights when you are headed to trial. That’s just the way it goes. And for every minute when you’ll be arguing an important motion to the court, delivering an impressive summation at trial, or launching into a devastating cross-examination, there will be another when you’ll be cursing at a photocopier that refuses to accept more than one page at a time without jamming as you make copies of 500 pages’ worth of discovery at 2:00 a.m. some morning, in an already-filed case that just got handed off to you by a senior attorney (“This will be good for you”) and in which the judge definitely hates you and yelled at you for no reason yesterday and by the way, why has there been no one else in the office for what, seven hours now? (Let me emphasize here that defense attorneys, I am certain, have exactly the same moments, and thoughts about their circumstances.)

Unlike big-firm work, you don’t have a $160,000 first-year paycheck to provide ready balm to these discontents. The rewards of the district-attorney position are more inchoate and diffuse–it really is about serving the community–and interviewers may justifiably wonder whether a person who manifests a sense of entitlement early on will understand that as a district attorney, it’s not really about you; it’s about the job.

***

The advice above isn’t exclusive of other suggestions that I make to students preparing for any type of law-job interview.  This advice includes:

1) Be Enthusiastic. Nothing, but nothing turns potential employers off more than the sense (right or wrong) that an interviewee doesn’t really want to work with them.  Give the impression that you have waited your entire life for this opportunity.

2. Be Prepared to Discuss Anything in Your Resume, and Prepare Your Resume with This Fact in Mind.  I had a friend who drew a distinction between the dynamics associated with early dates, and those present in later phases of a relationship.  In early dating, he said, anyone can seem interesting, because everyone has around 25 sure-fire, committed-to-memory stories about themselves that are at least passably entertaining.  It’s when those stories are exhausted, he said, that the real “work” of dating begins–i.e., talking about nothing, or current events–and soon enough, you’ll figure out whether or not you’re compatible with the person you’re with (and they’ll engage in the same calculus, as to you). (Come to think of it, my friend may have ripped this anecdote off from some other source; it sounds awfully familiar.)

With interviews, you are still in the “25 stories” portion of your relationship. This means that there is no reason why you should NOT come off as interesting. (That was an awful sentence, but hopefully you see what I mean.) Your resume should provide the kindling for your conversations here, pointing interviewers toward the questions you want them to ask you. And when they ask you these questions, you should retrieve from your memory banks a pre-crafted (or at least, pre-outlined) answer that you know exactly how to tell in order to obtain maximum positive effect.

(This last point is why, when I review student resumes, I encourage students to add a level or two of detail to bland, generic descriptions such as “wrote legal memoranda and court documents.”  Memoranda on what topics, or at least, what areas of law? What types of court documents? So long as you’re not breaching client confidences, there is no reason not to add this sort of information, which will tee up better [in that they are more specific] questions to you, and better [in that you may be able to display your knowledge of specific areas of the law] responses on your part.)

Why are these stories important? I can think of at least two reasons. First, a good story  can put your enthusiasm for something on display. See Point One, above. Second, they allow you to put your best oral-communications foot forward. As discussed, during an interview, employers are constantly assessing whether you are someone they can put before a client, or a judge, or a jury. By telling a good story, one that you’ve prepared and styled your resume to highlight such that you can have some confidence that at least some employers will ask you about it, you can score significant points here, relative to other candidates.

3) Do Due Diligence on Your Interviewers, and their Organization.  In the first chapter of the book The Firm, the protagonist, Mitch McDeere, is being interviewed by a few attorneys at the evil law firm that he ultimately joins. During this interview, McDeere makes a passing reference to the undergraduate institution that one of his interviewers attended. The interviewers are, understandably, pretty damn impressed: How’d he know that?

While you don’t have to read the full Martindale-Hubbell biographies of each of your interviewers–even assuming that you know who they are–you CAN perform other, similar research that will leave your interviewers extremely impressed. If you’re interviewing with a DA’s or PD’s office, read the local papers to see what big cases the office has been handling, and develop an informed opinion about the issues presented in those cases. Read the online biographies of your interviewers, if you know who they are. Consider doing an online search or two about the cases that they’ve worked upon, as well.

I am not telling you to cyber-stalk your interviewers. Do not find out how many kids they have, what they paid for their homes, or what their mothers’ maiden names are. Instead, I’m suggesting that you learn as much as you can that will allow you to have your own Mitch McDeere moment–so that when an interviewer poses a hypothetical to you, you can begin your reply with something like, “This reminds me of the case that you worked on, in which [X].  I likely would respond to the situation much as you did, namely [Y].”  Alternatively or in addition, when it comes time for the inevitable “Do you have any questions for us” portion of the interview, you actually will have a good question for them: something like, “In preparing for this interview, I noted that there seems to have been an uptick in local DUI prosecutions.  Was this the product of a new local law-enforcement policy toward DUI enforcement, and if so, how was this office involved?”

***

OK, that’s about all I’ve got, at least for now. I hope this is helpful. Good luck!

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