Expert Opinion: Ten Tips to Nail Prosecutor and Public Defender Interviews

[Editor's Note: we are re-launching our Expert Opinion blog series!  Every Thursday the PSJD Blog will feature a post containing career advice and other information from a variety of leaders in the public interest community.]

Ten Tips For Nailing Prosecutor/Public Defender Interviews

By: Chris Teague*

This gentleman knows from whence he speaks.

At the 2012 NALP Annual Education Conference in Austin, TX, I moderated a program titled “Hypothetically Speaking: Preparing Students for Prosecutor and Public Defender Interviews.”  The panel featured Rory Stein (the Miami Public Defender), Jeremy Sylestine ( of the Travis County, Texas District Attorney’s Office), and Rachel Peckerman (of NYU School of Law’s Public Interest Law Center) and offered excellent advice on how to approach interview hypotheticals. The panelists stressed that applicants should be prepared to articulate clearly why they want to work as a DA/PD.  They also offered many tips for handling hypos.  Here are my top 10, along with a list of frequently-encountered themes: 

General Tips

  1. Be wary of answering questions by stating that you would check with your supervisor.  Hypos are designed to see how you react when confronted with very difficult fact patterns.  While your gut reaction may be to immediately consult your supervisor for help, it is important that you avoid the urge to “pass the buck” and instead deal with the difficult situation head-on.  If you believe the circumstances warrant the involvement of your supervisor, it may be OK to say so, but make sure your answer doesn’t end there.  Elaborate on this response and give your own assessment of the facts.   
  2. Show your work.  Even if your answer is wrong (keep in mind that some hypotheticals don’t have one correct answer), make sure to talk through your analysis.  The interviewer will likely give you credit for demonstrating a logical approach or asking thoughtful questions, even if you ultimately arrive at the wrong answer. 

Tips for Prosecutor Interviews

  1. Remember that a prosecutor’s primary goal is to pursue justice.  While it is important to demonstrate your willingness to uphold the law and to request incarceration if warranted, some prosecutor’s offices will ask questions that test your ability to see the bigger picture.  Also keep in mind that prosecutors represent the state, not the victim.  The victim’s interests may not always be in line with the state’s. 
  2. Don’t disregard the Constitution no matter how serious the crime.  A prosecutor should never condone the violation of a defendant’s Constitutional rights, even when doing so appears to be advantageous.  Always go with the ethical, Constitutionally-sound answer.  
  3. Be on the lookout for exculpatory evidence.  This is a popular interview topic.  Some hypos may deal primarily with a prosecutor’s obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence.  But be aware that other hypos – ones that appear to address a completely different topic – may secondarily touch upon exculpatory evidence.  If a question mentions evidence that may be exculpatory, even if it seems like a minor part of the question, you should discuss that evidence in your answer.  
  4. Demonstrate sensitivity with reluctant victims and witnesses at all times, even when their reluctance negatively impacts your case.  This does not mean that victims and witnesses should always control how you handle a case, but rather that their opinions and concerns should be addressed in an appropriate and considerate way. 

Some common themes you may encounter:

  • Exculpatory evidence (Hint: If the interviewer gives you information that might weaken or impede your case, it might be exculpatory.)
  • Handling a reluctant witness (Hint: Reluctant witnesses sometimes appear as a scared or recanting domestic violence victim, or as a victim with collateral concerns, such as immigration issues.)
  • Role of the prosecutor (Hint: If the hypo concerns a victim with credibility issues or doubts about the case, a lying police officer, weak evidence, or a misidentification issue, part of your answer may want to demonstrate your understanding of the prosecutor’s role in pursuing justice.)
  • Search and seizure issues (Hint: You may be asked to advise a police officer how to proceed with the investigation of a suspicious person who is suspected of carrying contraband.)

Tips for Public Defender Interviews

  1. Always zealously advocate for your client.  Advocating for your client may negatively impact a victim or witness; that is OK.  Unlike prosecutors, public defenders must act in the best interest of their clients, not in the pursuit of justice. 
  2. Caveat: While you are zealously advocating for your client, be sure that you do not violate the law or any ethical rules. 
  3. Demonstrate that you are completely comfortable representing people who have committed crimes.  Some applicants focus on their interest in representing defendants who have been unjustly accused of a crime.  This is certainly a noble endeavor, but be aware that public defenders often must represent people who “did it.”  Regardless, all criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law and deserve the best defense possible.
  4. Recognize the importance of earning a client’s confidence.  You may be asked to role play a client intake interview or otherwise demonstrate your ability to communicate with a client and build trust.  Be prepared for the “client” in your role play to be withdrawn or possibly hostile.

Some common themes you may encounter:

  • If your client has told you that he committed the crime, is it ethical for you to argue to a jury during closing argument that “the defendant is absolutely innocent of these charges”?  (Hint: A defendant is innocent until proven guilty.  An attorney can – and should – use the closing argument to present his or her interpretation of the evidence presented during the trial.)
  • Clients changing his or her story (Hint: You may be asked how you would handle a client who initially denies the charges and subsequently admits guilt.)
  • Strategy conflict with client (Hint: Be open to client input, but be ready to respond to a client who wants you to do something that you believe would be harmful to the case.

Visit PSJD’s Government Careers page for more resources on prosecution and public defense careers.  Good luck!

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*About Chris Teague:  Chris is Associate Director of Career Services at Boston College Law School, after a 10-year career as an Assistant District Attorney in boston and as a defense attorney.  He currently serves as the NALP Northeast Regional Representative and is a past Chair of NALP’s LGBT Section.  Chris is an active member of the Massachusetts Legal Recruitment Association (where he currently serves as Secretary) and the Massachusetts Law School Consortium, and he is a frequent speaker and author on a wide range of career- and technology-related topics.

2 Comments »

  1. Cybele Smtih said,

    August 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    Chris: Thanks for presenting and thank you very much for sharing!!

  2. Cybele Smith said,

    August 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    I am so excited to share this I mis typed my name…that’s excitement!

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