Thursday, November 4, 2010

Who gets to be an ADA?

Great question on my little Skribit device:

What determines who gets an ADA job -- highest civil service or bar exam scores? Or is it political?

The thing I love the most about this question is its underlying assumption: that an ADA job is a desirable one.

And I love that so much because, in my view, it's absolutely true. Best job I ever had.

But to answer your question, the hiring process is pretty much like other jobs: a vacancy arises, people apply, some get interviewed, and the lucky winners get hired. I believe we have a hiring committee, but I think the final decision is always down to the elected DA.

What does she base her decision on? Hard for me to say. I'm pretty sure it's not based on bar exam scores, simply because no one hires based on those. There's also no civil service exam (was my anonymous questioner from Canada or the UK?!). As for whether it's political, I think not. I say that because my politics were not inquired into, nor did I overtly campaign for either of the DAs that hired me.

And my own experience is most of what I have to go on. The one question I got, over and over in my interview, was whether I wanted to be in court a lot. Some people like the idea of it, but not the practice. And, of course, some people become lawyers and never want to set foot in a courtroom. I assured those interviewing me that being in trial was the reason I became a lawyer, and that I absolutely wanted to spend time in the courtroom. I guess I convinced them because they gave me the job.

Now, my own hiring was a little unusual because my previous experience was all at a civil firm. That means the hiring committee could be assured I had good research and writing skills, but not any experience in trial. That meant sticking me in a courtroom was a bit of a gamble (one I'm very glad they made).

The hiring procedure I usually see is lawyers starting off at the county attorney's office, where they handle misdemeanors, and then, after a few years, graduate over here to try felony cases.

The one thing I've never seen is a brand new lawyer get hired at the DA's office. The reason being that there are many applicants for each spot so there's no real reason to take on someone who's new to practice. They might be good, sure, and very smart. But so are those wanting to work here who already have experience.

I hope that's answered the question fully, if not please follow up in the comments, I'll be glad to elaborate.


  1. Over here in GA, new lawyers get jobs in DA's office every year, but it's usually in the less populous districts. Apparently, we have a hard time pulling seasoned attorneys from the big cities and all of the locals that want to prosecute are already in the office. The relatively low salary (compared with private practice) doesn't really help matters.

  2. To me it appears that there must be political considerations to some extent in ADA hirings. The fact that DAC was hired by two DAs seems to suggest pro forma resignation and reappointment when there is a change of administration at the DA’s office, letting a new DA decide on her own team.

    Of course at a hiring interview there won’t be questions about political inclinations, just as there will be no overt inquires about religious preference, age, marital status, etc. However, an applicant’s participation in primary elections of a particular political party and monetary contributions to political campaigns are easily available from public records, and most certainly a DA will be aware if an applicant has provided financial support to her election campaign.

    In DAC’s jurisdiction I believe the most recent DA election had four candidates, all of whom were ADAs at the time, and all of whom belong to the same political party as the retiring DA who presumably had appointed them. Thus, I find it hard to believe that the DA has no clue as to an ADA applicant’s political leanings at the time of hiring

  3. Jeff: we have a similar disparity, I'm sure most govt. positions do. But we got a salary bump a year or so ago, and it's more than enough to live on.

    Anon @1:12: you make a faulty assumption in your first para, which may have led you astray. I worked here as an ADA for a year, then left to go into private practice for two years. During that time, our first assistant became the elected DA. I contacted her when I wanted to come back and she's the one who hired me, hopefully based on my past performance.
    I'm sure you're right that any DA could check out an applicant's donation history. My belief is that they'd probably be too busy and, more importantly, care more about whether someone will do a good job than who they vote for.

  4. DAC, thanks for the great post. It's a little disheartening from my point of view because while I'd love to work at the TCDA, you've simply confirmed what pretty much everyone has told me: they don't hire out of law school.

    Thus I've applied for internships at a variety of major city DA's offices (that hire straight out of law school), with an eye to someday coming back to Austin. How viable do you think this pathway is? Thanks.

  5. I've hired dozens of ADAs. I can tell you there was never any formula--and I strongly disagree that politics ever played any role. My office always wanted lawyers with strong trial skills (or the potential for them), good analytical ability AND the ability to get along in the office and work as team players. Figuring out whether a candidate had those skills was always difficult. We would typically have a committee to do the interview and I ALWAYS included at least one clerical staff member on the panel to try to get a sense of the "get along" factor.

    It's worth noting that some offices retain their lawyers for long periods of time. Mine was one of those, so there was no place for applicants who just wanted some trial experience before heading off to "make the real money" in private practice. We always looked for people who genuinely wanted to be prosecutors.

  6. In addition to your qualifications, your past experience, and your desire to be in court all the time, I'm thinking your British accent didn't hurt either. For some reason, something said with a British accent always sounds so much more impressive.

    In Philadelphia, almost all of the new prosecutors were hired directly out of law school. Maybe it is because the salary was so low there.

  7. RG: I think you are on the right track. Get those internships and even work at a smaller DA's office if you can, just for a year or so. Don't be disheartened, you'll make it eventually and when you do you'll be in the best job in the land!

    Kent: Thanks, that's pretty much my view. People have been at these office for decades so I know those who hire here take the long view, too.

    Jamison: I actually knew someone who worked at the Philly DA's office and she, like you say, was hired out of law school. She also quit very quickly, if I remember rightly she didn't much care for the atmosphere and felt she was over-worked.

  8. I'm currently a 3L, and intern/clerk at a large metro county attorney's office. (In my jurisdiction, the county attorney's office handles felonies and the city attorneys handle misdemeanors.) The county attorney right now is a Democrat, which is usual here. However there are vocal and not so vocal ACAs from all parts of the political spectrum. At least here, my impression is that the politics of an individual assistant county attorney do not matter at all. It is a job focused on prosecuting -- the county attorney handles the political stuff.

    As for hiring, this office tries to hire at least some, though not a large percentage, of the graduating interns. I can look back through memos written by former interns and see a lot of the current ACA's names represented. Budgets are tight now, of course, but I'm crossing my fingers.

  9. In Massachusetts hiring is generally very competitive, and getting an interview is a game of politics. If you don't know someone that is a department head, or even the first-assistant DA, good luck! You won't get an interview. (Especially in this economy.)

    This past year, due to the budget, Suffolk County (Boston) hired only 10 new ADAs out of over 1000 applicants.

    All of the hiring in Massachusetts is out of a pool of new attorney's - generally hired even before bar exam results are released. (Most of them were Student Prosecutors for the office.)

  10. I'm in San Francisco, and the first two paragraphs in the posting above mine (Nov. 10, 2010 11:10 a.m.), applies here as well.

  11. In Chicago, new hires are mostly recent law school graduates. How much experience are they looking for at your office? Does it help if it's at another DA's office?

  12. Anon: definitely need some experience, and yes if it's from another DA's office that's great.


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