What Law School Didn’t Prepare Me For As A Prosecutor

What Law School Didn’t Prepare Me For As A ProsecutorThis week we welcome back guest writer and tutor Sara Beller to discuss what she’s learned as a prosecutor.

I’ll never forget my first day as a brand-new prosecutor. My new boss showed me around the office and made introductions along the way. I shook hands, tried to remember everyone’s name and role within the office, and repeatedly questioned what in the world gave me the confidence to think I could flawlessly walk around in 4-inch heels.

The last stop on the grand tour was my very own office. That’s when it hit me. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I was officially a prosecutor and all my hard work paid off.

My “hey look mom I made it” moment was quickly interrupted when I noticed the mountain of files on my desk. Suddenly I had a stack of case files to read, motions to write, discovery to review, jury trials to prep, and so much more. I didn’t need to worry though, law school prepared me for this…right? Wrong. Let me tell you about a couple of things I didn’t learn in law school:

Our Criminal Justice System is Centered Around the Defendants

Now, you may be thinking, ‘well duh – of course it is. How did she not learn that in law school?’ I’m glad you asked because I have a theory.

Law students read case after case after case. Day in and day out. And most law school cases are civil, so the case name is always Plaintiff’s Name v. Defendant’s Name. Does Hawkins v. McGee ring a bell? If not, it’s because that case is affectionately known to law students as “The Hairy Hand” case. *Cue everyone’s “Oh yeah – the Hairy Hand case!”* My point is, when law students read that case, they learn about the fateful events that unfolded between Dr. McGee and hairy-handed Mr. Hawkins. Two people.

Criminal case names look a little different though. For state prosecutors like me, our cases are always People v. Defendant’s Name. The prosecutor represents the people of our state, which is the government entity that brought criminal charges against the defendant. And just like law students, when prosecutors read their cases, they learn about the fateful events that unfolded between the defendant and…the government? Well, not exactly.

The sad reality is that criminal cases are the result of a person (or people) that has been injured or otherwise victimized at the hands of the defendant. So why aren’t criminal cases called Victim’s Name v. Defendant’s Name? Because the victim isn’t a party in a criminal case, but the defendant is. The victim generally doesn’t go to every court date, but the defendant does. The victim usually isn’t represented by an attorney, but the defendant is because he or she has a Constitutional right to legal representation.

Notice a pattern yet? Defendants are essentially the nucleus of our criminal justice system. That’s not to say that victims don’t have rights, because they absolutely do. In California, victims have several enumerated rights in the California Constitution under what’s called Marsy’s Law. But when I first became a prosecutor, I didn’t realize just how much focus was on the defendant compared to the victim. It didn’t make sense to me. I mean, the victim is just as much a part of the case as the defendant.

As I stewed over our defendant-centered justice system, I remembered a quote from Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “My job as a prosecutor is to do justice. And justice is served when a guilty man is convicted, and an innocent man is not.”

Now, no disrespect to Justice Sotomayor, but how is justice served if the defendant is our only concern? It’s true that justice is served when a guilty man is convicted, and an innocent man is not. I call this bringing the defendant to justice. But my job as a prosecutor doesn’t end there. My job as a prosecutor is to do justice – I bring the defendants to justice and bring justice to my victims. Then, and only then, can justice truly be served.

Working with Opposing Counsel is Actually Pleasant

Most of the time. You know how there’s always that one gunner in class? Well, any practicing attorney will tell you they’ve had a run in with that one opposing counsel.

But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that *thankfully* a difficult-to-work-with opposing counsel is the exception, not the rule. At least that’s been my experience. The truth is, I see more pleasant interactions between prosecutors and defense counsel than I expected to before becoming a prosecutor.

I like to think that prosecutors and defense counsel are like Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog. Remember them? They work at the same sheep meadow but have very different job descriptions. Ralph’s objective is to abduct the sheep, while Sam’s is to protect the sheep – which Sam often accomplishes by pummeling Ralph. Naturally, chaos ensues during their workday. To an outsider looking in, Sam and Ralph would look like mortal enemies. But when the whistle blows and the workday ends, they clock out together and exchange pleasantries, same as they do each morning before work begins.

Just like Ralph and Sam, prosecutors and defense counsel are adversaries. And just like Ralph and Sam, most prosecutors and defense counsel have a mutual understanding: We both have a job to do, it’s not personal. The courtroom is our sheep meadow. In there, both sides set out to do their respective jobs and may look like mortal enemies in the process. But when the whistle blows, or rather when the gavel strikes, we walk back to our offices together and exchange pleasant chit chat along the way. Cases will come and go, but we still have to work together in the future. After all, there’s no point in being miserable when you can just be pleasant.

The truth is, I’ve been a prosecutor nearly five years, and I feel like I learn something new every day. And most of the time, it’s something law school didn’t prepare me for. While criminal law can be an overwhelming area of the law to practice, the rewards of being a prosecutor are incomparable. Here’s why. Have you ever read The Lorax? It was my favorite book as a kid. Growing up, other kids would ask me why I read it so often, and I honestly didn’t know. Can I tell you a secret? The Lorax is still my favorite book. When I became a prosecutor, I finally realized why. Like the Lorax, I speak for the trees.

One last thing law school didn’t prepare me for – the humbling feeling I get every day when I walk into the courtroom and speak for the trees. Being the victim’s voice for justice has, and will always be, the honor of a lifetime.


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About Sara Beller

Sara earned her J.D. from Western State University College of Law in 2016. During her time in law school, she served as a member of the Law Review and was consistently at the top of her class. She also worked as a Dean’s Fellow, which allowed her to tutor and mentor other law students.
Sara passed the California Bar Exam in 2017 on her first attempt. Immediately after passing the bar, she started working as a Deputy District Attorney and has loved every minute. She has also taught Intro to Legal Methods as an adjunct professor.
In her spare time, Sara enjoys spending time with her family and live music.

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