Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What makes a good prosecutor?

As I look around the office, I see what most people in the workplace see: colleagues with a varying arrays of skills, personalities, and approaches. So I got to wondering whether there are things we have in common, or aspire to, when it comes to being a prosecutor.

In other words, what makes a good prosecutor?

First, I suppose you have to define the job. I mean, some prosecutors prepare and present indictments (grand jury division) and some don't get to come to the courthouse because their cases are more specialized (e.g., the insurance fraud division). So let's go with my role: an ADA in the felony trial division. If you missed my post earlier about what we do, generally speaking, have a look here.

So, what makes a good felony trial prosecutor?

1. I don't think you can be good at this job if you forget your purpose. It sounds trite, maybe, but it's very true: our job is to do justice. Not get convictions, not send people to prison, not max out on sentencing whenever we can. Do justice. I know that because the guy who hired me said so, and because it's in the Book:
"It shall be the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys, including any special prosecutors, not to convict, but to see that justice is done." Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Art. 2.01.
So, the first and perhaps most important qualification is adherence to this principle.

2. You have to enjoy being in trial. I have always believed that you can't be really good at something unless you enjoy doing it. So while we all have off days, I think you have to love the theater of a jury trial, you can't be a timid, retiring wall-flower.

3. Relatedly, you have to be able to see the big picture. You have to look at your case, the defendant, and your witnesses and know whether you can achieve what you want to achieve. It's all very well standing on principle and insisting on a trial, but if you can't see your case crumbling before your eyes, then my guess is you are focusing on some small part of it and not seeing the bigger picture.
For example, say you have a DWI case. The police report might make it obvious the defendant was intoxicated and you might insist on going to trial because you believe the police officer. Why would he lie? (And, in my experience, they do have much better things to do than arrest innocent people.) But what if the video tape is missing? What if the cop is a rookie and trembles like a leaf on the stand? What if he trembles with nerves when you meet him in your office?? Is it better to lose or to offer a plea deal? Maybe your end goal was to ensure the defendant gets treatment for alcoholism, and he'll do if for a reduction in the sentence.

4. I think a good prosecutor has to be a good listener as well as a good talker. And by "good" I mean discerning. Listen to the victim, see what will make them whole. Maybe it's not prison for the defendant, maybe it's restitution for whatever was stolen or broken. Listen to the defense lawyer, he or she will usually tell you where your case is weak. You need to know that. Listen to your colleagues. They have experience in making the right punishment "rec." They have tried an insanity case before, so can help.

5. Keep perspective. This is the best job in the world, and it allows us to help people like no other job I've ever had. We're given a badge and a cool title. We are entrusted with a huge amount of discretion (which I will blog about in the near future), and we often get to choose whether someone goes to jail or not. But we're not superheroes, we're not deities, and just as we shouldn't expect others to see us that way, we shouldn't crush ourselves with the weight of our own unrealistic expectations. We can't win every trial, treat every drug addict, restore every victim to his or her former self. As long as we try, do our best, and remember that we're as human as everyone else in the courtroom, we'll be okay.

So, what have I missed?


  1. i dont like this and blah blah i think a good prosecuter is made up out of poop and filth and should be thrown in to jail cells for the rest of their life get a life and play call of duty

    1. That is such a childish response.

    2. There is always one negative Annie to every situation, just because, you may have had far to many run ins with the law, doesn't mean you have to talk down on prosecutors, maybe you should stop playing call of duty, because it is clouding your judgement, grow up and get a real career...

  2. i am a new prosecutor and this article is of great help. i remember there is a saying..there is no master but law, no guide but conscience, no goal but justice:)

  3. WOW i have to admit by saying that you are a great writer. i like the way you put out everything!! so sincere and with great respect.. It has always been my dream to be in court and i will make it there no matter what. i wish that there was actually a site that i could sign up and get all this intro about a Prosecutor and all that!! You are Great!!!

  4. The last time I checked, insurance fraud prosecutors prove their cases at the courthouse just like violent crime prosecutors. A white collar crime prosecutor might not get to court as often as others, but generally their cases are harder to prove and take more skill to win. Try keeping a jury's attention while you present forensic audit testimony. The white collar defense bar is also more experienced. In other words, fraud guys are the A-team of prosecutors. This is as true in Travis County as in New York or Los Angeles.

  5. I agree with he majority of comments here. Most prosecutors are every logical and have guts. The very good ones aspire to be some of our best legislatures(i.e Supreme Court). We need to concentrate back on the principles of this country' Founding Fathers!

  6. As a current prosecutor coming up on my 5 year anniversary, I like what you posted about. I have only done 10 or so jury trials and can't seem to buy a trial this year. (They all seem to plead open, get reset, or work themselves out.)

    I will say the most important thing I have learned as being a felony trial ADA is to have an outside life and hobbies. The most successful people at my office seem to be able to compartmentalize all of the horrible things that our job entails. They have a calm sense of purpose and never show fear, intimidation, or stress. These are the people that "know" how to be a prosecutor.

    I have good days and bad days, but one thing I know at the end of the day, is that I am doing work that matters. Yes, I could be working at some civil firm billing ungodly amounts of hours and maybe making six figures, but I can tell you I would hate my life. This job gives me purpose and flexibility like no other. If I was not a prosecutor, I do not think I would practice law. Keep this stuff coming. Keep up the good fight.

  7. Great article for someone looking to become a prosecutor.


Comments posted to this blog are NOT the opinion of the Travis County D.A.'s office, under any circumstances. They are only the personal, non-representative opinion of D.A. Confidential if posted under his name.
I welcome all comments, as long as they are expressed with politeness and respect. I will delete all comments that I deem to be personal attacks, or that are posted merely to antagonize or insult.