Before committing to this career path, it’s advisable to acquire a sound, comprehensive sense of the nature of a prosecutor’s job. This background research includes seeking out and satisfying particular hiring requirements for the desired position. At a minimum, one needs a talent for trial work and as much hands-on experience as possible.
It’s equally important to understand what being a prosecutor is not: not locking up as many people as possible for as long as possible, nor a reflexive, mechanical application of the criminal justice system to wrongdoers. Instead, to be a good prosecutor one must have a sophisticated understanding of people and their motivations and of the needs of the public, as well as the wisdom to determine an appropriate course of action. Being a prosecutor draws upon legal skills as well as one’s capacity for fairness, compassion, and empathy.
How does a prosecutor define success? Former and current prosecuting attorneys agree that the measure of one’s aptitude is not a win–loss record or the number of people receiving lengthy prison sentences. Rather, success is a function of how well a prosecutor furthers the cause of justice—a goal not necessarily synonymous with a high conviction rate. Prosecutors must be sensitive to the needs of the community they represent and consider independently the facts of each situation before deciding to pursue a case at all. This judgment, an appropriate use of prosecutorial discretion, characterizes a truly successful prosecutor.
In fact, according to former federal prosecutor Mark Biros, now a partner at Proskauer Rose LLP, a good prosecutor is not a zealot on behalf of the government. “He or she cannot be ideologically committed to one side or the other. The government is not always right and the defense is not always wrong.”
Current and former practitioners stress that prosecutors must be keenly aware of both their power and their discretion. Deciding whether to prosecute someone accused of a crime, possibly resulting in that person’s loss of liberty, is a grave responsibility. A good prosecutor must have the wisdom and judgment to know when the use of discretion—to seek lesser charges, accept a plea bargain, or avoid bringing the case altogether—best furthers the interest of justice. A punitive attitude does not indicate a mature sense of judgment.
“You should be a person who wants to make sure that the system works,” says Eric Holder Jr., former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and deputy attorney general and now a partner at Covington & Burling LLP. “The best people want to make sure that the system works for everybody and that justice is ultimately done. . . . You have to be prepared at times to apply your discretion and say that the better thing in this situation is to bring a lesser charge or, in some instances, to walk away.”
Certain other traits are also shared by successful prosecutors. “Anyone wanting to be a prosecutor must have a strong personal character,” says Carol Elder Bruce, a former assistant U.S. attorney and independent counsel and now a partner at Venable LLP. “You’re given awesome power to decide whether to charge or even whether to investigate a case. . . . It really does behoove a prosecutor to be mindful of the power he or she wields and to always be fair in dealing with the other side.”
Moreover, adds Bruce, “a truly successful prosecutor is respected by the defense bar for being smart, capable, and a great trial lawyer, but someone who is fair in dealing with the defendant and the defense attorney. That includes meeting obligations under the Constitution for sharing evidence in advance of the trial and not sandbagging the defense improperly in argument scenarios.”