Criminal cases are the big leagues in the American legal system. When major crimes are committed, the public demands justice and it’s up to prosecutors to deliver.
On the other side of the coin, all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Prosecution teams must build ironclad cases with evidence presented beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict, a high bar to clear for any legal team.
Paralegals are an important part of those prosecutorial teams, filling in the gaps between overworked attorneys and office staff without substantive legal training. The expert legal knowledge a trained paralegal brings to the table is combined with the detail-oriented organizational capabilities they’re known for to ensure that every last vital piece of a case is presented fairly and accurately to judge and jury.
Prosecutors and the paralegals that support them work for the federal government, state, or municipal governments as employees of state or local district attorney’s offices, or the U.S. District Attorney’s office under the U.S. Department of Justice. This means they are public sector employees, occupying a unique and important role in the judicial system.
Any paralegal who has ever celebrated a courtroom victory in the successful prosecution of a dangerous criminal will tell you that there is nothing quite as fulfilling for anyone with a sense of right and wrong and a desire to go home at night knowing they’ve made a difference in the world.
Criminal prosecution can happen at the local, county, state, or federal levels. The criminal code and types of cases are different at each level, and paralegals are responsible for understanding both the applicable criminal code and the court procedures for the particular venue they are working in.
Paralegals also perform office work outside the confines of criminal cases. In smaller offices, they might have responsibilities that include:
- Helping manage witness protection programs.
- Working in family or victim support capacities.
- Preparing and filing required reports for state or federal agencies.
- Working on budget preparation and special projects.
In all cases, strong analytical and organizational skills are required. There is always more work to do than there is time available in understaffed district attorney offices. Paralegals have to be able to prioritize and delegate appropriately to keep cases on track.
Criminal Prosecution Requires Methodical, Diligent, and Consistent Paralegal Work
Although criminal prosecution is consistently interesting work, it is rarely as thrilling as the latest episode of “Law and Order” might have you believe. The fact is most cases never go to trial. According to a 2012 New York Times article, fully 97 percent of criminal cases in federal court and 94 percent of state cases end with a plea bargain, not a trial.
This doesn’t mean the job is easy, however. Far from it.
In order to leverage evidence to get a guilty plea and a just sentence, the prosecutor’s office still has to build a case that would hold up at trial.
Paralegals may even get in on the negotiating process that leads to a plea bargain, working with the defense counsel to hash out the points of the case they would otherwise have to face in court.
When a plea is made, it’s likely that a paralegal will be responsible for drawing up the necessary documents, including the agreement itself and the court filings necessary to inform the judge and finalize the arrangement.
Building Criminal Cases From The Ground Up
Much of the work of building a case in a prosecutor’s office revolves around gathering evidence to support the prosecution’s theory of the case. It’s up to police and detectives to conduct a thorough investigation to bring to the prosecutor, but that’s often just a starting point for deeper digging. As the files are examined and the prosecutor develops their case, they often find that the legal arguments hinge on aspects of evidence that need additional support to hold up in court.
Paralegals are often the staff that are sent out to chase down these threads to establish rock-solid proof to rest the case on, working as liaison with the police officers and detectives who worked the case. They may also work with special investigators who work directly for the district attorney’s office for this purpose. Both paralegals and investigators may re-interview witnesses or work to find additional witnesses or physical evidence to bolster the prosecution’s argument.
In all criminal cases, paralegals working for the prosecution can be expected to handle all sorts of paperwork, including:
- Criminal or felony complaints, outlining the formal charges.
- Motions requesting particular orders relating to the case (such as for summary judgments or dismissals).
- Subpoenas for evidence or witness appearances.
Paralegals may also compile evidence and documents into formats the prosecutor can easily reference, or put together displays for use in court, such as posters, diagrams, or videos.
Paralegals Are All About Details… And It’s Details That Make the Case
As with their counterparts in private practice, paralegals in the district attorney’s office are responsible for keeping the case calendar and ensuring that important dates and deadlines do not get missed. No one wants a criminal defendant walking free because charges weren’t filed before the statute of limitations expired; it’s up to paralegals to keep that sort of mistake from happening.
They are also responsible for all the other myriad detail work involved in a legal proceeding, from organizing case files to coaching witnesses for testimony to coordinating with defense counsel.
Paralegals working for the prosecution also spend a lot of time with their noses buried in law books or databases such as LexisNexis and the Law Library of Congress, conducting research to uncover decisions offering precedents applicable to the current case.
Paralegals are key participants in pre-trial strategizing, bringing their research to the prosecution team as they develop their theory of the case and plan the presentation to judge and jury.
Paralegals are also involved during the voir dire process, assisting the prosecutor in evaluating and challenging jurors during the empanelment process. Prosecutor’s offices have relatively few resources for evaluating prospective jurors but it’s likely that one of the paralegals on the team will be charged with reviewing the questionnaires that the jurors fill out and perform some preliminary profiling. This will guide the questions that the attorney will use to probe the juror during voir dire. It may also be used later in the trial to help craft arguments that will specifically appeal to the jury that has been empanelled.
To aid in this and other vital tasks at trial, a paralegal will often sit with the prosecutor and handle the details of the presentation of the case, including:
- Managing and organizing items of physical evidence to be submitted.
- Organizing references and paperwork and passing relevant items to the prosecutor as they are needed.
- Listening in on both prosecution and defense arguments and taking notes on important points.
- Observing the judge and jury and noting their apparent reactions to arguments and evidence.
How to Become a Criminal Prosecution Paralegal
The right education is a must for paralegals who hope to work in criminal prosecution. Understanding court and police procedure down to the last detail is vital for constructing cases that won’t fall apart on a technicality.
Building experience in these areas is also important. In some areas, prosecutor’s offices accept volunteers to help with paperwork and other clerical tasks. This can offer exposure to the types of cases and case work that you will encounter as a paralegal in those offices and will help your resume stand out when you apply.
The American Institute for Paralegal Studies (AIPS) offers a 12-month litigation specialty certificate for paralegals, covering subjects of interest to prosecutorial paralegals including ethics and personal responsibility and criminal law.