Public Defense or Prosecution?

At the annual NALP conference a month ago, one important panel addressed careers in criminal justice and the differences between public defense and prosecution.  The panelists consisted of attorney representatives from the San Diego Federal Defenders Office, the Center for Appellate Litigation, and the Associate Director of Career Services at Suffolk University Law School. 

1.)    What are some of the key values of public defense and prosecution attorneys?  

Public Defense Values Prosecution Values
Your commitment to the client, not to justice or the victim or the truth. Prosecutors represent the state, not the victim nor the witnesses; you will not always be driven by what the victim wants.
Your willingness to go very far to protect your client-legally and in other ways—only drawing the line at breaking the law or ethical rules. Seemingly “personal” crimes may affect society and not just the direct victim.
Your openness to the client’s own input into his or her case. Prosecutors do not make laws; they enforce them; you must be able to enforce petty crimes and drug crimes, and argue for high sentences at times.
Your awareness of poverty issues, such as physical and mental health problems; educational deficits; and housing, immigration and benefits issues. Prosecutors report to an elected or appointed official and carry out his or her own policies, not their own personal agendas.  In some states, this will include being willing to seek the death penalty.
Your empathy. The police work hard and make important decisions at times.  A prosecutor should respect the conditions under which police work, but is bound by the law and not by police decisions.
Your ability to detect when your client is mistrustful of you and your ability to elicit more information respectfully. Jail—for however long—is a serious punishment and a terrible place to be, but you must be comfortable being the person to push for it.
Your realism about/ability to adapt to the limitations under which you will work (e.g. high case load, low budget, etc.) A prosecutor’s job is to do justice, not to accumulate convictions.  Sometimes a conviction is not the just outcome.


2.)    What classes should I take in order to prepare myself for a career in criminal justice?

Some of the classes you might consider taking in order to not only expose yourself to the practice of criminal law, but to also help you prepare for a career in the justice system are: criminal law, constitutional law, trial advocacy, evidence, etc.  Students are also encouraged to participate in moot court, simulations and clinical opportunities which offer practical experience.

3.)    What are some of the common mistakes one makes in interviewing for a position (internship or permanent) in the field?

Mistakes include: inability to explain in a cover letter why you want to work as a prosecutor or public defender (or, if seeking an internship opportunity, why you want to work in either of these settings); lack of preparation for the type of work each office does (if you are seeking court experience, you may not be interested in a position with a public defender, etc.);

4.)    How might I make myself more attractive in a cover letter?

Do your research!  As stated above, demonstrate that you understand what each office does  and make it obvious how you are prepared for the type of work you are applying for; include relevant experience (i.e. mock trial, moot court, internship or clinical work, etc.); talk about your judgment skills, articulate how you might fit within the office-culture; show your ties to local community if you can; express where your heart or passion is—demonstrate a commitment to the client or to justice and express what it was that made you want to practice criminal law. 

Courtesy of NALP.   If you would like access to the handout, please see PDO.