in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

So You Want My Job: Federal Prosecutor

Jerry Sanford federal prosecutor portrait photo.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.

Man, I love Law & Order. Am I the only one?

Our interview today is with a man whose job is Jack McCoy-esque; however, Jerry Sanford worked as a federal, not state, prosecutor. Mr. Sanford retired in 2008 as an Assistant United States Attorney. He made a career of doling out justice and putting the bad guys behind bars. This is his story.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Where did you go to school? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

I was born and raised in Chicago, and graduated from the University of Illinois undergrad and the DePaul University College of Law. I recently retired from the U.S. Department of Justice after nearly 30 years as a federal prosecutor. I practiced law for a total of 42 years. When I left Justice, my official title was Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida (Gainesville Division). I had begun in the Southern District of Florida (Miami) in 1975 and went north in 1990. In Miami I held the positions of Chief, Terrorist Unit, and Chief, Narcotics Conspiracy Division. In Gainesville, I was the Managing Assistant of the Gainesville Division of the Northern District.

There are 93 districts in the United States, at least one in each state. For example, Arizona is one district and is known as the District of Arizona; New York, because of its population, is divided into the Southern, Northern, Eastern and Western districts. Each district has a main office, with branch offices in other areas of the district. The main office is, in effect, a field division of the Department of Justice, similar to FBI field offices, with their branch offices, known as Resident Agencies.

Each United States Attorney is appointed by the President, and approved by the Senate, for each district. He or she is the chief federal law enforcement officer for that district. The United States Attorney carries out law enforcement mandates from Justice Department headquarters in Washington, but is fairly autonomous to designate law enforcement priorities based on the criminal problems in his/her district.

The United States Attorney is also responsible for hiring the district’s staff, which includes Assistant U.S. Attorneys, commonly known as AUSAs, and support personnel. Though some AUSAs handle civil law suits in which the United States is a party, roughly 90% of the AUSAs prosecute federal criminal cases.

Population in a federal judicial district is one determinant of the size of an office. The Southern District (New York City) of New York may have over 300 AUSAs; the Northern District of Florida has approximately 40.

As a criminal division AUSA, I assisted federal law enforcement agencies (FBI, DEA, ATF, ICE, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Department of State Office of Security, Joint Terrorism Task Force, etc.) in the investigation and prosecution of defendants who violated federal criminal laws in my district. Some cases are worked with a task force concept that involves multiple agencies, and may include local agencies. While the vast majority of those cases result in guilty pleas, many are trials that may last from a few days to several months.

Typically, a special agent of a federal law enforcement agency would present (describe/explain/show) me the evidence he or she has that would warrant bringing formal charges, by indictment, against a defendant. I would make a decision whether the evidence was sufficient or not. If not, the agent and I would discuss what and how to get additional evidence. And sometimes there wasn’t enough evidence no matter what the agent did or could do. The AUSA then issues a declination, and the case is closed.

It was always this stage that gave me the most satisfaction, i.e., planning strategy and tactics with the agents, moving step-by-step to use all our investigative resources to keep after the bad guys, to finally put them between the proverbial rock-and-a-hard-place – especially when the bad guys knew we were on their trail. It was this, what I call the “chase,” that was the most stimulating and exciting part of my job. I’ve investigated cases for two-three years that resulted in one-two week trials. Some trials were three-four months. But for me, the trials were mostly anti-climactic. For other AUSAs, the reverse is true.

2. Why did you want to become a federal prosecutor? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I had watched some federal criminal trials in law school and was struck by the majesty and dignity in the courtroom and the skills of the AUSAs. I honestly doubted I‘d ever reach those standards. I moved to Miami and went into the State Attorney’s Office for a few years, then entered private practice. I signed up as a court-appointed attorney to represent indigent defendants in federal court and found myself facing top-notch AUSAs. But I won a few trials, became friendly with the AUSAs I tried cases against, and one day asked a senior AUSA if they might have any openings in his office. That got me an interview with the United States Attorney – and he offered me the job. As with so many events in my life, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.

3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of choosing to work in the public sector as opposed to a private firm?

The disadvantage is a big one: MONEY. You will never make as much money in the public sector as you will in private practice.

The advantages: 1) You are presented with awesome discretion and authority; your signature on an indictment will alter a person’s life forever, and possibly put that person in jail for the rest of his/her life. 2) You will quickly become a skilled trial attorney, handling multidefendant complex cases years before your friends in the private sector get to conduct their first direct examination. 3) You are bombarded by legal issues for which you have the sole responsibility. 4) You don’t have to worry about bringing in clients (read: money) to keep your job, or how to handle the business side of a law practice. 5) You only have to deal with the law and how to apply it to give bad people what they deserve. 6) You get to wear The White Hat. An advantage I found was a variety of experiences that gave me material of write a novel, Miami Heat.

4. If a man wants to become a federal prosecutor, what’s the best route into the job? How necessary is getting an internship with the Justice Department while in law school?

I can’t tell you the best route, but (unless you’re the offspring of a Senator) I can tell you a few things that will put you in a good position. First, though, be aware that very few, if any, AUSAs are hired out of law school. Primary qualification: 3-5 years as a top local prosecutor in the city with a U.S. Attorney’s Office. Make yourself known to AUSAs and/or others in the federal law enforcement community and through the Federal Bar Association, if there is a nearby chapter. It always helps to have someone inside to speak up for you. And, of course, be at least in the top-quarter of your class.

The Justice Department has Volunteer Legal Internship programs for law students, without compensation, usually offered via the law school in a city with a U.S. Attorney’s Office. It won’t get you a job, but it’s a great opportunity to see up close how the U.S. Attorney’s Office operates. Here’s an exception: the Department does hire law students for entry-level attorney positions, following graduation through the Attorney General’s Honors Programs. Check it out at the Justice Department website.

5. How do you and how long does it take you to work your way into the federal prosecutor position? What tips do you have for moving up the ranks?

What I said in 3, above, applies here. Those attorneys with extensive prosecutorial experience, however, can go to the Justice Department website and look in the Attorney Opportunity section that posts job openings not just in U.S. Attorney’s Offices, but throughout the Department. Landing a position at Main Justice (DOJ Washington) in the Criminal Division may later open the door to an AUSA position as a lateral transfer. The variety of attorney positions at Justice is astounding: How about becoming a Resident Legal Advisor in Baghdad or Khandahar? Or perhaps the two-year detail in Paris, Rome, or Madrid might sound a bit more enticing. The goal, however, is to get into the Department. Once you are inside, the opportunities greatly expand. Moving up? Win the big cases.

6. How competitive is it to get a job with the Justice Department?

Highly competitive. Highly, highly competitive. You may send a resume to any USAO and it will be placed in an applicant file. Hopefully, your resume will have that something-special, i.e., bi-lingual, information technology expertise, outstanding trial work-qualifications that will put you high on the list. Openings now are generated primarily by attrition. When a “slot” opens, the U.S. Attorney has the applicant files pulled for review by several staff AUSAs, who begin the resume weeding-out process. Some offices may have 200 applications for one slot, others may have close to 1,000. Whether they winnow it to 10 or 25, several prospects are called in for intensive interviews, usually by several members of senior management. That interview may be the most important “jury trial” of your career. Here’s a caveat: if you don’t have an ego, don’t even try.

Then, perhaps, to three, then one. Every office has a procedure, not necessarily the one I described, but something similar. But this is where personality, prosecutorial experience, and high-level recommendations become the deal-maker or deal breaker.

7. What qualities does a man need to be a successful federal prosecutor?

Aside from prosecutorial experience and superior intellect: The ability to think quickly and on your feet, to argue without giving quarter, to communicate well at all levels, to say no, to control your temper, to accept but not show defeat, to listen, to lead, to inspire, to have presence in the courtroom (you’ll know it when you have it), to accept criticism (really hard to do), to have stamina (for 14-16 hour days during trial). And tons and tons of sincerity.

8. What is the best part of your job?

The indescribable feeling that you are doing something positive for society and that, at least in a small way, you can make a difference. The camaraderie you share with other prosecutors and agents you work with; the idea you are all working toward the same, positive goal. The thrill and excitement of “the chase.” (But as I said, that’s not for everyone.) Letting the job become addictive.

9. What is the worst part of your job?

Elements of the Justice Department bureaucracy that make you feel like you’re walking in molasses. Hurry up, then wait for approval when action is needed immediately (not waiting occasionally put me in some hot spots). Threats against you or your family, but only the serious ones. Coming across a rotten apple in your barrel. Hearing the words, “Not guilty.” Letting the job become addictive.

10. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

You have to work to make it balance. Other than lengthy trials and trial preparation, it’s usually manageable – certainly easier than in the private sector and its billable-hour requirements. But criminal trial work is mentally and emotionally draining. You can’t – You cannot! – make a mistake. The job can become all-consuming and will take a toll on your life if you let it. Having your family put under protection by the U.S. Marshals Service can be unnerving to your wife and kids.

11. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

That a federal prosecutor is just a paper-pusher and has little to do with the defendants. Under the United States Code, an AUSA is a “criminal investigator.” After a defendant is arrested, he becomes the AUSA’s responsibility. We don’t carry guns and can’t arrest people, but we often work with agents from the beginning of a case and at every stage until the jury verdict. That female AUSAs are push-overs. Don’t ever believe that, think that, try that.

12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

So why would any lawyer want to be a federal prosecutor? I can’t answer for the thousands of AUSAs who have taken the oath of office, but I can give you my reason. And remember, I’ve been a public defender in Chicago, an assistant State Attorney in Miami, a private defense attorney in Miami, and an assistant United States Attorney in Miami and northern Florida. I’ve walked the walk.

But back to the point and my reason: It is, quite simply, the best job in the legal profession. No other position will give you the pride, the belief in yourself, the belief in your integrity, the challenge of matching wits against top legal minds (including judges), the satisfaction of running down and putting away criminals who have harmed people who may have been relatives, friends or just damn good people who follow the law every day of their lives. For me, it was always the challenge: knowing a crime was committed, believing I knew who did it, collecting the evidence to prove it, and satisfying a jury the proof was sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt to warrant a guilty verdict.

I’ll leave you with this: view with skepticism any lawyer, prosecutor or otherwise, who says he’s never lost a case. Any attorney who makes that claim quite likely has not tried more than 20-25 cases. “Everyone” knows AUSAs aren’t supposed to lose cases. But it happens, and the bitter taste doesn’t go away easily. But whether you win or lose, you’ll always walk out of the courtroom a winner. Why? Because of your diligent efforts, because you played by the rules, and because you never stopped in your quest for the ephemeral concept for justice. But it’s still pretty hard to be a “good loser.”

Finally, I can’t guarantee that every AUSA feels any more or less strongly about the job than I do. But if you want to be a federal prosecutor, reflecting on my interview may not be a bad idea.

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