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Donna Gerson

"Career” Prosecutor At Home in the Courtroom
by Donna Gerson

Published in Student Lawyer, Volume 36, Number 1, September 2007.

© 2007 American Bar Association.

Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association

Meet Peter Salib, a new assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. He tells Student Lawyer’s Donna Gerson about his career path, a typical workday, and how his Arabic language skills help him seek justice for crime victims

Peter, what influenced your decision to become a lawyer?

In college, I fought some traffic tickets and went before a judge because I thought I had a decent case each time. I really liked the setting of the courtroom. Later, still as an undergraduate, I took electives in critical reasoning, philosophy, and business law.

In my junior year, I took a course in computer ethics that dealt with cyberlaw. That class really opened my mind to a world beyond computers, which I was studying. I found the subject matter—how the law interacts with the Internet—really interesting.

You work as an assistant district attorney for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. What influenced your decision to become a prosecutor?

I went through the normal on-campus interviewing (OCI) process during the fall of my second year in law school. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office participated in fall OCI and interviewed me for a summer intern position. At that time, I had no idea what I wanted to do.

After receiving the offer, I spoke with a law professor who had worked as a public defender, and she suggested that I try prosecution first. So I ended up at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office as an intern for my second summer. The first day on the job, after the initial training, I was in court prosecuting cases, and that was it for me. I knew then that I needed to be a prosecutor.

You love being in court?

Absolutely. As a first-year district attorney, you are in court every single day. Even as an intern, you are in court every day.

How many cases do you handle?

During my summer internship, I handled 10 to 20 criminal cases a day. As an assistant D.A., I now work on 30 to 35 cases a day.

That’s an enormous amount of work.

It is. Especially for what I primarily do, which is felony preliminary hearings. Half of our Municipal Court Unit handles the 30,000 felony preliminary hearings and the other half handles the 35,000 misdemeanor trials. It’s a ton of work, but it’s quite rewarding.

Describe a typical workday.

For felony preliminary hearings, you’re typically in court at 8 a.m. The judge usually sits by 8:30. Court can go until anywhere between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. It depends on how many cases are ready to be heard that day. Of the 60 or so cases on the list, a long day could be 15 hearings that actually go on. Everything else will get a continuance or be disposed of in some manner.

It’s really unpredictable to tell when you’re going to get out. You don’t know who is going to come into court, there might be other courtrooms where witnesses may not be able to come in that day, the defense attorney might be busy elsewhere . . . there are a lot of things that can cause a case not to go on because everything has to align on each case.

After your cases conclude, what happens next?

After you finish in court, you get lunch and pick up your files for the next day and prep your files the rest of the afternoon or night. That could go from whenever you get out of court to anywhere from 6 to 10 p.m., depending on what your case list looks like the next day. It’s very intense, and it’s a lot of hours because of the high volume of cases.

How many hours a week do you work, typically?

Anywhere between 60 and 70 hours per week, on average.

Do you work on the weekends?

Yes. Usually, I will come in one day on the weekend to catch up from whatever happened that week. Once you’re done with court, you have to return your files and mark them up for the next listing or for if they’re going to felony trial or misdemeanor trial.

I noticed from your résumé that you speak Arabic and have some knowledge of French. Do you find that these language skills are helpful in your work?

Definitely. I’ve spoken to several Arabic-speaking witnesses who have been victims of crime. It’s difficult for them because they don’t understand the judicial process. They sometimes don’t know what it means to come to court. In some countries, in the criminal justice system—even if you’re a victim—there is no justice.

Being able to connect with someone speaking their language puts them at ease and takes the focus off of the language barrier that may otherwise exist. It also allows me to order the proper interpreter for the hearing or trial. Among my colleagues, we have prosecutors who speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Hebrew, and Polish, so there are a lot of languages represented.

Where did you learn Arabic?

My parents are Egyptian immigrants. I am a first-generation American who grew up speaking Arabic in my home.

As an assistant D.A., do you record your time like lawyers in private practice, and do you have billable hours requirements?

No, not at all. The only thing we do is sign in every morning and sign out at night to make sure who is in the office. There is no clock that tracks how much time is spent on each case as there is in private practice.

Each case requires a different amount of preparation, and what’s important is that you are fully prepared on each case. When there are 60 to 70 cases on a list, there’s no time to be wondering what’s going on in each case. You have to be ready to fully answer the court when the case is called.

You passed both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bar exams. What is your employer’s policy with regard to bar passage?

When you are hired, you sign a letter of intent and give a three-year commitment. In my offer letter, the terms of employment specified that I had to pass the Pennsylvania bar exam on the first try. Otherwise, you have to tender your resignation or you’ll be terminated two weeks after the results are released.

What’s the typical career progression for a new D.A.?

Typically, you start your first year in the Municipal Court Unit, which involves misdemeanor trials and felony preliminary hearings. After that, you go to the Juvenile Unit, where you handle juvenile crimes, felonies, and misdemeanors for the next six to 12 months, on average.

Then you return to the adult system and handle felony waivers for about a year. Felony waivers deal with defendants who have been held for trial in the felony preliminary hearings and who have waived their right to a jury trial and want the case heard before a judge.

Once you complete felony waivers, you can go in several directions. Some district attorneys work in the Repeat Offenders Unit, which is for people who have long records with repeat offenses. You can go to Major Trials, which is for jury trials, felonies, and defendants who don’t want to waive their right to a jury and want a jury trial. There is also the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit, which handles sexual assault cases and also domestic cases that are felony cases and held for trial. The Homicide Unit handles only homicides and has a select few district attorneys. There are other divisions in the office outside of the trial division that one can also go to.

Do you enjoy your job, and if so, why?

I thoroughly enjoy my work. Our unit is like a family. You really feel a sense of camaraderie. There’s a huge learning curve, but we’re all here to learn and do good work.

What that comes from is a sense of helping the victims. The defendants are entitled to legal counsel, and they have someone representing their interests, whereas for victims of crime, the only people who represent them are the district attorneys who handle their cases.

For me, it’s a sense of service. It’s a sense of really serving the community and people whose lives have been torn apart or who have just been severely inconvenienced on a smaller level. Either way, they are victims of crime, and their lives have been disrupted, and their sense of security has been violated.

Is there any downside to your work?

One of the downsides is the hours. Also, you can feel some frustration at times about the system. The way it’s set up, it’s difficult, oftentimes, for us to put our cases on. For instance, your victim is pres-ent, but the defense attorney doesn’t show up. He or she has another case in another courtroom. Your case has to be postponed despite the fact that you’re ready.

Sometimes the victims don’t want to cooperate. They don’t want to testify or come to court because it’s too much of an inconvenience, or at worst, they are afraid of retaliation. It becomes frustrating sometimes, and the worst time is when you have a victim who is willing to come to court and it just seems that the odds are stacked against them. Something has gone wrong every time they’ve been there that is preventing us from putting on their case and having their story be told. Oftentimes in the courtroom, you feel like the only person who wants to see justice done.

Do you do a lot of work with the police?

Absolutely. Oftentimes, our police officers are our only necessary witnesses, for example, in a drug case or a gun possession case. It gives you an appreciation—once you see and talk to the officers and understand what they go through on a day-to-day basis—just how dangerous it is out there, even on a routine car stop. It’s really a job that I think is underappreciated.

What kind of on-the-job training did you receive?

New hires start training two weeks after the bar exam. The first week is an intensive training by our unit chiefs and other prosecutors on case law and the kind of cases we’re going to be putting on—just a solid week of training.

The following week, you’re actually in court handling cases. In the afternoon, you come back for several hours of training every day for five days that whole second week. Meanwhile, every day you’re going to court, coming back, training, and then prepping for the next day. That goes on for two weeks after the initial training week. After that, you are pretty much on your own in the courtroom—you and your partner.

What is it like working with a partner?

One of the best parts of this job is your partner in the courtroom. They’re your other set of eyes—your teammate. The unit chief traditionally assigns two prosecutors to each courtroom. There are just too many cases otherwise. One person to prepare 60 cases in one night is just impossible. You split the cases down the middle, pretty much evenly, and you just do it.

And it’s, honestly, one of the best things. The relationship you develop with your partner and other people in the unit is really like a family, and that’s one of the big plusses of this job. Later on, you will have your own courtroom. Right now, though, it’s a great opportunity to have a partner and learn together as each day brings a different experience. When you switch units, you are assigned a new partner.

Who supervises your work?

In the Municipal Court Unit, there is a chief and two assistant chiefs. It’s the only unit in our office with three supervisors. The supervision that our chiefs provide is invaluable. They’ve been at the office for at least six years and have seen it all when it comes to the cases we’re handling. They know what it is like to be in our shoes, and they give us the perspective we don’t yet have when we’re looking at a case. We go to them for anything and everything, and one of them is here late each night to help us when there’s some crisis we just notice the night before a case is scheduled. At times, we unwittingly may take them for granted, but the guidance they have provided for us, even in our personal lives, is greatly appreciated.

You interned your second year before applying and becoming an assistant D.A. Did you find that doing the internship was helpful for your candidacy?

It’s hard to say, but I can tell you this: The internship essentially became a 10-week interview because our unit chiefs saw us everyday. The assistant D.A. who was supervising in the courtroom had to write reviews about our work to let the chiefs know how we were doing.

As far as the interview process goes, as an intern, once your second summer is over, there is an exit interview that also acts, if you wish, as your hiring interview for a full-time position the following year. It definitely gives you something to talk about in the interview, as opposed to someone who has not worked there.

In your opinion, are there certain qualities that prosecutors share in terms of outlook or disposition?

Assistant D.A.s represent the people of the commonwealth or state (Pennsylvania is a commonwealth). Your duty is to the citizens, to the community, to the society, as well as to do justice not only for your victim, but also for the defendant because defendants also are citizens and people of the commonwealth or state. It’s a unique position to be in.

One of the qualities I believe a prosecutor must possess is one of doing justice—whatever that may be. It’s not necessarily a conviction or getting a case held for trial; the most appropriate thing may be to withdraw a case or reduce charges.

We also have to be willing to work hard. There are too many cases with a person’s liberty potentially at stake in each case. We have the power to stop a criminal prosecution by just saying a word in court, and I think awareness and responsibility of that power are absolutely necessary—that this is for real. This isn’t TV. We can control what happens to a human being’s liberty, which is one of the most trusted things in this country.

Prosecutors also have to have a heart for victims. They have to be able to listen to people, hear their story, and believe in their cause. We want to be able to improve a community by reducing crime and holding people accountable for their actions because just a few people can destroy an entire neighborhood.

In terms of law school, were there any particular classes or experiences that were helpful to you in your current work?

Definitely. At Temple, specifically, the Integrated Trial Advocacy Program was instrumental to me in my job. Temple’s program is set up so that, each semester, you have a substantive class and a recitation section with a professor or practicing attorney. You put on openings, closings, direct examination, and cross examination; you do exercises and drills based on what you have learned in evidence in the first semester; and you apply those abstract legal concepts in a practical courtroom setting. For example, how to approach a witness, move a document into evidence, or respond to an objection.

Tell me about your summer study abroad program in Rome after your first year in law school. Would you recommend summer study abroad to other law students?

Absolutely! I thought it was a great experience. We got to live in another country for five weeks, go to school, and experience another culture aside from being a tourist or being on vacation. We really experienced that culture from a different perspective. It gave me an appreciation of how people live there and an opportunity to experience their culture on that level in addition to learning international law topics and sightseeing. I took it all in differently.

And you combined your summer study abroad with a law clerk job after you returned?

That’s right. The way it worked out, I didn’t have a job nearing the end of spring semester my first year. I didn’t have an internship lined up. So I figured I would study abroad. In the meantime, one of my mentors referred me to a friend who runs his own intellectual property practice, who said, “When you come back, you can work for me three days a week. I’ll show you the ropes.” So I went to Rome for five weeks and came back and, for the next five weeks, worked part time with this attorney on intellectual property issues.

Having worked in intellectual property your first summer, did you find that you had difficulty transitioning to the D.A.’s office for your second summer?

No. Right after that first summer, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an intellectual property attorney coming out of college, and then I got to the second year of law school, started the trial advocacy program, and it really grabbed me. That class gave me the skills to be able to stand up in court and, one, know what was going on and, two, understand the training that we were given as interns. The program was so good at Temple, I think 15 of the 23 people in my incoming assistant D.A. class were Temple Law graduates.

What tips do you have for law students who are considering careers as prosecutors?

I would give law students the advice that was given to me: If you want to become a prosecutor, and you know that early on, then try to get an internship your first summer, if possible. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has a first-year internship program. You can then try to parlay that into your second summer. I know a lot of people do that. In the first summer, you really see what it’s like and also make a lot of contacts.

I would also advise students to go downtown and watch a courtroom. Or you can ask an attorney or your professors if they know any prosecutors and go check it out and talk to them. One of the things that I genuinely enjoyed right after I started was supervising a clinical student that was assigned to my courtroom to prosecute cases. She would ask what seemed like a hundred questions about the job. It was a great chance for me to help a student who wanted to be a prosecutor.

If you talk to any D.A.s, ask them, “What can I do to get a job there?” or “What courses should I take?” or “Who should I meet?” It’s been my experience that anyone in our office you ask for advice is more than willing to talk to you. Find a D.A. and really pick his or her brain. Watch that D.A., or watch his or her colleagues.

Peter, where do you see yourself in five years?

I see myself prosecuting jury trials. I took this job to be a career prosecutor, and I hope to fulfill that goal in this office.

In terms of TV shows like CSI and Boston Legal, do they bear any relation to what you actually do?

As far as my experience is concerned, it is not like that at all. On television, everything is about the magic fingerprint or the magic shoeprint, the DNA that miraculously appears at the crime scene . . . that’s very unlike real life.

It’s difficult when you are in the front of a jury when they’re thinking, “Where is the fingerprint?” “Where is the DNA evidence?” We try to do as full an investigation with the police as possible. But few cases in real life are that open and shut.

A prosecutor can’t create the facts, but those that do exist can be put together piece by piece to form a complete picture for a judge or jury because, more often than not, that “magic bullet” doesn’t exist—which is why I would say to law students, “Come downtown and check it out.”

Peter Salib Résumé Highlights

Education

Temple University, Beasley School of Law, J.D. (2006)

Drexel University, B.S. in Information Systems (2003)

Work experience

Assistant district attorney, Municipal Court Unit, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office

(2006–present)

Student intern, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (2005)

Law clerk, Design IP, Allentown, Pennsylvania (2004)

Network engineer, Searchlight Associates, Inc., Falls Church, Virginia (2000–01)

Professional affiliations and licenses

Admitted to practice in Pennsylvania and New Jersey

Member, American Bar Association

Member, Pennsylvania Bar Association

Additional Resources for Would-Be D.A.s

Hiring practices for D.A.’s offices vary throughout the United States. Those in smaller cities may not hire on a regular basis and may only hire lateral attorneys with experience. But large, urban D.A.’s offices will typically offer internships for law students and engage in entry-level hiring.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office offers the Legal Internship Program, a 10-week program designed to give second-year students maximum exposure to the practical aspects of the prosecutor’s role. Second-year interns are certified and try their own cases in Municipal or Family Court. Interns have an opportunity to rotate through at least three units in the office. For application and deadline information, visit www.phila.gov/districtattorney and click on “Internship Opportunities.”

In addition to Philadelphia, D.A.’s offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Cook County (Chicago), Los Angeles, Miami, and San Diego will hire directly from law schools. Research the hiring policies in cities that interest you by starting with the local websites. Other helpful information sources:

• The National District Attorneys Association (www.ndaa.org) lists post-graduation lateral positions throughout the United States.

• The American Prosecutors Research Institute, the research, development, and technical assistance arm of the NDAA (www.ndaa.org/apri), publishes the National Directory of Prosecuting Attorneys.

• Most states have D.A. associations that promote education and public relations and post hiring information as well.

Kathleen McDonnell, chair of the hiring committee within the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, offers the following general tips to law students who are interested in becoming an assistant D.A.:

Get clinical experience. Attain as much practical experience through your school’s clinic program as possible. Gain experience in the courtroom, work with clients and before judges, and understand the fundamentals of trial practice. “The more exposure to the courtroom, the better,” McDonnell says.

Work as an intern. Secure an internship during the semester or for the summer that enables you to see what prosecutors do on a daily basis. Whether it’s with the local D.A.’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, or a public defender’s office, work in the field.

Pass the bar exam. Because D.A.’s offices are so trial driven, you must be licensed. Therefore, plan to take as many bar preparation courses as necessary, and take the study process seriously to ensure your success on the exam.

—Donna Gerson

 

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