District attorneys play a vital role in the legal system. They represent the citizens of their district, trying cases against criminals and developing outreach and prevention programs. To make it to the top of the district attorney's office, women can expect to put in long hours handling routine duties early in their careers.
Before trying a case, the district attorney reads conclusions of law enforcement investigations. If she needs more evidence, she assigns her own investigators to track down more details. If evidence is too weak, she may decide against prosecution. Many district attorneys have task forces that investigate specific crimes, such as child abuse, domestic violence, computer crimes and gang activity. Some district attorneys also handle probation and parole violation cases.
Much of a district attorney’s time goes to prosecuting criminal cases that carry punishments such as fines or jail time. The district attorney presents her evidence to a grand jury, which decides whether there’s enough of a case to indict the accused. If the grand jury decides a case should go forward, the district attorney oversees the trial before a judge or jury, building a case based on evidence, questioning witnesses for the state and asking for a guilty verdict. The district attorney also represents the state during appeals. To avoid a trial, the district attorney may negotiate a plea bargain with a defendant.
When she’s not trying cases, the district attorney works to prevent crime. District attorneys develop educational programs that teach prevention strategies to the public and law enforcement agencies. A substance abuse initiative, for example, might involve partnering with youth groups to sponsor community forums or panels that encourage students to avoid alcohol and drugs. Other common prevention programs target bullying and cyber-bullying, gang awareness, school safety and community-based justice.
The work of law enforcement agencies and lawmakers affects the district attorney’s job, so she spends time reaching out to police departments and politicians. She gives elected officials legal advice regarding official duties and helps law enforcement agencies understand legal issues related to criminal investigation, searches, seizures and arrests. Plus, she advises grand juries on legal questions. When lawmakers discuss public-safety legislation, the district attorney may testify. She holds training sessions for police officers on combating crime. Training may include how to spot human trafficking, handle domestic violence calls or understand victim-notification systems. District attorneys' offices also attend fairs and other community events to distribute educational literature, and they may run programs that pair defendants with mentors to help them get their lives back on track.
Aspiring district attorneys should expect to work their way up slowly to big cases. Most district attorneys start as assistants, handling calendar calls, arraignments and misdemeanors. What’s more, most district attorneys expect new assistants to work seven days a week, including holidays and weekends. That’s especially the case in departments in big cities, which may have hundreds of attorneys on staff. Also, most district attorneys offices require employees to be a U.S. citizen and a resident of the district, and they may ask candidates to commit to working with them for at least a few years. To advance in the district attorney's office, lawyers need several years of courtroom experience, as well as proven debate and performance skills to make the case before a jury. It's also essential to be detail-focused, fair and people-oriented. Plus, aspiring district attorneys need the energy to handle much bigger caseloads than they would see in the private sector.
District attorneys need seven years of post-high school training. They must earn a bachelor's degree, preferably with course work in English, public speaking, government and economics. Three years of law school follow. Most states require attorneys to attend one of about 200 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Law students take courses in constitutional law, contracts and legal writing, and they get hands-on experience in the practice of law through school-sponsored legal clinics, moot court competitions and internships with law firms and government agencies. To practice, they need to pass their state's bar exam. To keep their license, they usually have to take continuing education courses every one to three years.
- Pueblo County (Colorado) Government: What Does the District Attorney Do?
- Lehigh County, Pennsylvania: District Attorney
- Pace Law School: Career Guide to District Attorneys’ Offices, 2012-2013
- The New York County District Attorney’s Office: What Is the Function of the District Attorney?
- Denver District Attorney: Prosecution Units
- Middlesex (Massachusetts) District Attorney: Middlesex District Attorney Office's Intervention & Prevention Programs and Initiatives
- State of Oklahoma District Attorneys Council: Training for Victim Advocates & Law Enforcement, and Grant Opportunities
- Colorado State University Student Legal Services: Plea Bargaining Misdemeanors
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become a Lawyer
- The District of Columbia Bar: How to Become a Prosecutor
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