When you read the biography of a private law practitioner, you will often find that the attorney began their career as a “prosecutor.” That is how I started my career and I believe that my three years of experience in that area of practice prepared me well for my transition over to a private firm doing civil litigation and, yes, criminal defense work.
Generally speaking, the Prosecuting Attorney or District Attorney is the elected official for any particular political subdivision charged with, among other things, enforcing the criminal laws against offenders. In Ohio, which is divided into counties, the elected county prosecutor is known as the Prosecuting Attorney. Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys work for the Prosecuting Attorney and together, they are ultimately responsible for enforcing the laws of the State of Ohio at the county level. These prosecutors represent the people of the State of Ohio and handle a wide variety of legal issues, but are most well-known for handling criminal cases through jury trials.
New attorneys understand the advantage of beginning their career as a prosecuting attorney. That advantage is, generally speaking, high quality experience. In today’s legal world of rising litigation costs and infrequent jury trials, recent law school graduates and young attorneys in firms rarely get the chance to practice law in the courtroom. A criminal prosecutor is generally in the courtroom on a daily basis and frequently tries cases to a jury. This experience is invaluable. For the last three years, I was an assistant prosecutor handling felony-level criminal cases. Now I am a criminal defense attorney and civil trial attorney. For me, the transition from a prosecutor to a defense attorney has been a smooth one because of the transferable skills I was able to develop in the early years of my legal career.
First, as an Assistant Prosecutor, I had to develop a methodical and disciplined approach to reviewing information in order to distinguish true evidence of a crime from irrelevant material. I was required to prove all cases beyond a reasonable doubt in order to overcome the presumption of innocence afforded to all criminal defendants. In order to do that, I had to break down each crime into its specific elements and find evidence demonstrating that each element was met. As fundamental as it may seem, this is not always easy to do. Former prosecutors have an advantage because they learned, usually in the early formative years of their career as I did, what it takes to successfully prepare and prove every part of a case up to and through a jury trial.
Second, for those former prosecutors who, like I, expect to do criminal defense work, having been on the prosecution side provides insights that others do not have. Every attorney who litigates any case, civil or criminal, has to try to “get in the head” of the opposing attorney. That is easier to do if you have truly walked in the opposing counsel’s shoes. As a defense attorney, prosecutorial experience can help in finding the weak spots in a prosecution and ultimately formulate a better defense for a client.
Third, former prosecutors have the advantage of having practiced in the courtroom on a regular basis. This is probably the greatest experience one gains as a prosecutor. The courtroom can be an intimidating place for a new attorney or an attorney who, though not new, rarely gets to the courtroom because of the fact that the vast majority of cases are resolved without getting to trial. Prosecuting criminal cases on a daily basis leads to a confident understanding of the complex rules of evidence and procedure that apply to courtroom proceedings. That experience also allows an attorney to develop oral argument and advocacy skills that are important whether arguing for the conviction of a criminal defendant, the acquittal of a criminal defendant or the granting of a civil motion. Arguing before a judge or jury is a craft that is fine-tuned over time through trial and error. A prosecutor is afforded the opportunity to polish this skill on a daily basis. As time goes on, a prosecutor becomes more confident and more comfortable in the courtroom. Confidence and comfort in the courtroom are traits that you simply cannot teach in law school. I feel fortunate for having had the opportunity to get such a rich experience as a new attorney.
There are many more advantages that former prosecutors may enjoy. Generally, I believe my time as a prosecuting attorney ingrained in me a deep understanding of the justice system and how to successfully practice within it. And as a “baptism by fire,” I believe I was able to gain that understanding at a much earlier stage of my career than had I gone directly in to the private practice of law. Having recently made the transition to the private practice, I look forward to employing the skills I developed as a prosecutor to the successful representation of our firm’s diverse set of clients.
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