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I was shaking my head and telling my father, 'I can't believe I went to law school for this,'" DeGroot recalled. "My father said, 'Look at who you are. You were raised in a conservative background. Your father's a fire chief; your uncle's a police officer. Maybe you're cut out for the prosecutor's office.' It was kind of like a light bulb over my head."
Today, DeGroot is an assistant prosecutor with the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office in Paterson, NJ. It's a perfect fit for someone with law enforcement in his blood.
Q: So it's important to assess who you are, even your background and roots, when considering a career path?
A: If you're going into law for all the wrong reasons, it's just not going to work. You're just not going to like it. Some people are cut out to be tax attorneys. Some people are cut out to be plaintiffs' attorneys. Really look at what you are and who you are and what you think you'd enjoy. Looking at who you are is probably one of the best things you could do before you even go to law school. After law school, it's best to reflect again on why you went to law school, what type of background you have, family values, and financial issues. If you have a great deal of law school debt, going into the public sector might be hard. You really don't make a lot of money in the public sector, but the rewards are different.
Q: What's one thing they don't teach in law school that they should?
A: I don't think they teach you how to pass the bar exam. They don't teach you about the real day-in, day-out grind of practicing the law. It is a lot of work. It is a lot of preparation. I go out in the field. I interview witnesses. I go with my detective out into the streets. I have gone to autopsies. I don't think law school prepares you for the realization that you're going to be arguing on your feet, trying to find clients, trying to find witnesses. It really is a lot of work.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring prosecutors?
A: The most useful courses that they should focus on are evidence, criminal law, constitutional law, criminal procedure—but a heavy focus on evidence. Clerkships are an excellent avenue into the prosecutor's office. Three quarters of the prosecutors in my office had clerkships with the judges from my county.
If you don't have a clerkship, practicing politics is actually a useful means to open up avenues into the office. By getting involved in politics, you're meeting the lawyers, the campaign contributors, the judges. You're expanding your network. Practicing per diem work—maybe doing some pro bono work for criminal law—is a good way to get your feet wet.
Q: What are common stumbling blocks for new prosecutors?
A: Too often, they don't read the entire file. They look at a case, and they see it as A-to-B to B-to-C. When they get into court—and I've faced it myself—all of a sudden, the defense attorney comes up with six different ways to Sunday that you never thought about. So trial preparation is something the new APs have to get used to, working a case up from the moment you get the file, working with your detective, finding witnesses. That's a major stumbling block. The ability to try a case from beginning to end for new APs is hard. There's a big learning curve.
Q: What do you look for when hiring?
A: Passion. [Prosecutor's offices] look for somebody that comes into this job with fire in the belly, someone who wants to be a prosecutor.
They look for passion. They look for fire. They look for clear, articulate reasoning. They will ask you questions during the interview, and you should be able to orally support your ideas. They'll ask you, "How would you proceed on this if you were confronted with this?" You don't have to know the case, but you have to be able to articulate your thoughts. They're looking for somebody who can think on their feet.
Q: Who is your favorite lawyer in movies, books, or television?
A: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Even though he's a defense attorney, I love what he stands for.
LawCrossing has the most listings of any job board I have used. It's actually a great site. The website had a lot of detail. It’s nice that you don't have to go through a recruiter if you don't want to. You can actually contact the law firm directly for the positions listed. LawCrossing had a ton of great features.