What Is a Prosecuting Attorney? - Definition & Salary

Find out what it takes to become a prosecuting attorney, from the classroom to the courtroom, in this short profile. Learn about educational requirements, job skills, and potential pay to see if this career is right for you. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Overview

Prosecuting attorneys are lawyers employed by the government to represent the people of their jurisdictions in criminal trials. U.S. prosecutors at the county, state and federal levels work with police, victims and witnesses to bring suspected criminals to justice in courts of law. The chart below provides information on educational requirements, salaries and job outlook for lawyers and prosecuting attorneys.

Educational Requirements 4-year bachelor's degree, 3-year law degree (Juris Doctor)
Licensure Must pass state bar exam and be licensed to practice law
Job Skills Good speaking and writing skills, comfortable in a courtroom, broad knowledge of criminal law, strong sense of fairness
Job Growth (2016-26) 8% (all lawyers)*
Mean Salary (2017) $141,890 (all lawyers)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What are the Requirements?

Aspiring prosecuting attorneys must first obtain a four-year degree from an accredited university and then graduate from law school, which typically takes an additional three years. Law students interested in becoming prosecutors often focus their studies on criminal law. After graduation, candidates must pass the state bar exam and become licensed to practice law. They sometimes work as interns or clerks for district attorneys or judges before or after graduating. Successful internships can be proving grounds that lead to permanent jobs.

What Jobs Skills are Needed?

Good prosecutors are skilled at legal research and writing and are good speakers. They are also comfortable in front of a judge and jury and capable of building a persuasive case against a defendant. Prosecutors must be masters of all aspects of criminal law and also effective communicators with the defense, victims, witnesses, courts, law enforcement and other parties.

What is a Prosecutor's Job?

Prosecutors make decisions about whether or not to charge individuals suspected of having committed crimes. They often meet with defense attorneys to negotiate plea agreements. Prosecutors write and argue pretrial and appellate motions, play an active role in jury selection, and present the government's case against the accused from beginning to end.

Prosecuting attorneys are the first to speak when a trial opens, laying out the case against the accused. They introduce and interview witnesses to present evidence that the accused is guilty as charged beyond a reasonable doubt. During the defense phase of the trial, prosecutors cross-examine witnesses introduced by attorneys for the accused.

What Ethical Issues are Involved?

A major breakdown in criminal justice occurs when an innocent person is convicted of a crime, and a prosecutor has a serious responsibility to prevent this from happening. A code of ethics for prosecutors published by the American Bar Association says: ''The primary duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict. … The prosecutor should seek to protect the innocent and convict the guilty.'' The ABA's ''Criminal Justice Standards for the Prosecution Function'' also addresses potential conflicts of interest and proper relationships between prosecutors and law enforcement, courts, victims, witnesses and defense attorneys.

How Much do Prosecuting Attorneys Earn?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2017 that ''lawyers'' in general earned a mean (average) annual wage of $141,890. However, prosecutors are all employed by the government, with taxpayer-funded salaries regulated by law, and so they sometimes earn less, on average, than lawyers in the private sector.

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