Careers in Prosecution: 'Not About Catching the Bad Guys'

Press Contact: Jim Vescovi  at 212-854-7451
(NEW YORK) There are many reasons lawyers decide not to become prosecutors. For one, it doesn’t pay much compared to the big private firms. Others may balk at spending their careers trying to put people in prison, how a prosecutor’s job is commonly portrayed. But the five panelists on the Center for Public Interest’s presentation,  “Careers in Prosecution,” on Nov. 15, their work as prosecutors is the only legal career they would ever consider.
“I will never go over to the other side,” Jennifer Sigall, ’98, said of her decision to focus her career on public rather than private practice. 
Sigall told students at the panel, which was moderated by Professor Daniel C. Richman, she knew in law school that she wanted to help victims of rape and domestic violence crimes. 
Two summer internships — one at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., and another in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office — cemented her commitment. In Manhattan, she worked with fellow panelist Gail Heatherly on one of the first Internet sex crimes cases. Sigall joined the Manhattan D.A.’s office in September 1999 and has been working in trial Bureau 70 ever since
After 14 years at the D.A.’s office, Heatherly left to become Bureau Chief of the New York State Attorney General’s Criminal Prosecution Bureau. Her bureau gets referrals on state-wide cases involving anti-trust, mortgage fraud, auto insurance fraud and securities. 
“We get to pick and choose our cases so they tend to be more complicated,” she said.
Her bureau’s civil section also develops policy to prevent future crimes from happening by imposing regulations and making statutory changes, she said.
 Initially, panelists Taryn Merkl, ’00, and Jonathon Kolodner, were less sure that they wanted to be prosecutors. But two clerkships in the U.S. Attorney’s office taught Merkl that even in her first year she would “be given cases right off the bat” and could follow their progress from investigation to appeal.An assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York since 2002, she is currently assigned to the Business and Securities Fraud Section.
In law school, Kolodner was considering a career in politics until he attended a panel much like the one he was on. He recalled how an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting fraud crimes related “what a neat feeling it was to stand up in court and say, ‘I represent the federal government.’” The excitement of working with agents to “take down entire criminal organizations” appealed to Kolodner. Plus, he said, there was an appeal to simply helping to do the right thing. Today, as deputy chief appellate attorney in the Southern district, Kolodner supervises appeals in criminal cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
The pursuit of justice was a common reason for why the panelists became prosecutors. Merkl said she enjoys “the luxury of seeking the truth” as opposed to the private lawyer’s credo to serve a client. Jesse Capell, assistant corporation counsel in the Family Court Division of the New York City Law Department, likes his department’s move away from juvenile detention centers and toward offering “intense rehabilitation” through drug treatment and anger management programs.
 Heatherly said a common misconception of the job is that “it’s about catching bad guys.” Seeking justice — not necessarily convictions — and helping victims are the goals. Sometimes that can get difficult when prosecutors and investigators work closely on a case. Prosecutors must “hold themselves in a different place,” she cautioned.  “Remember you are not an advocate for anything other than justice.”