Associates in the Trenches

Street Smarts

Stint with DA’s Office Gives Big-Firm Associates Chance to Gain Trial Experience

Posted Jan 25, 2005 4:00 AM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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As a litigation associate in a large New York City law firm, Mar­garet L. Dundon has seen some impressive disputes in her four years of practice. But nothing compares to a recent shoe-throwing incident she handled while on loan to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.

Her work is part of a pro bono program, Partners in Prosecution, that helps litigation associates get trial experience by serving as pro bono prosecutors. That is how Dundon came to spend six months with the Brooklyn agency, handling a very different kind of caseload. The shoe throwing began when two Islamic men started trading insults at a local café and one of the men showed the other his shoe—an insult in Islamic culture. The other man then took off his own shoe and threw it at his antagonist, hitting him in the elbow.

That incident was resolved with an adjournment, which gives the defendant six months to comply with a protection order and get the case dismissed. Dundon hopes that something crossing her desk in her remaining months with the agency will result in a trial—like the case she recently started working up that involved the alleged use of a sharpened screwdriver to commit armed robbery.

“As a litigator at a big firm, there are not a lot of trial opportunities that come along,” says Dundon, who has never tried a case. “It’s geared toward settlement. I’m sure you can get trials, where clients are unwilling to settle, but in most cases people want to avoid trials because they’re so expensive.”

At the Brooklyn DA’s office, she says, things are much different. Prosecutors will offer a plea that they think is fair, and then move on to prepare for trial. “Not a lot of effort goes into trying to make a case plead out,” she adds. “It’s more geared toward actually pulling together a trial.”

Benefits on Both Sides

Dundon was one of three associates, all from different large New York law firms, who last October began spending several months with the Brooklyn DA’s office. DA Charles J. Hynes started the Partners in Prosecution program in 2003, when government budget cuts prompted him to approach large local firms for help.

The program benefits both sides: His office offers the experience, and the firms cover the labor costs. Participating associates, all of whom are midlevel, still receive their large-firm paychecks while they are working for the agency.

But the deal had even more appeal to Dundon. “Another part of it was the public service aspect,” she says.

Dundon first did some work with the Brooklyn DA’s office two years ago, handling an appeal pro bono. So when her firm announced its participation in the trial pro bono program, Dundon expressed interest. Associates were selected in part, she says, based on their work schedules and whether their departments could spare someone for several months.

Dundon doesn’t just deal with a different type of case, but also with a different type of case file. For example, in private practice, most of Dundon’s cases are document-intensive. But at the DA’s office, evidence is usually limited to victim statements, police reports and 911 transcripts.

Although Dundon and the other associates work alongside staff prosecutors, their responsibilities differ somewhat. Staff prosecutors also have a much larger caseload than the associates, but Dundon notes that the DAs are used to less trial preparation time. Generally, Dundon says, she doesn’t volunteer to opposing counsel that she’s not at the Brooklyn agency permanently. But she also doesn’t hide it, and she doesn’t think that people take her less seriously because she’s not a career prosecutor.

Opposing counsel, she says, “understand that our caseload is lighter—it’s not necessarily that they would see it as an advantage to have a case assigned to me, because they know we have more time to prepare.”

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