How Do You Become an Assistant U.S. Attorney?

Craig S. Denney is an attorney with Downey Brand. He previously served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Nevada for seven years and as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Washington for two years.

So you want to become a federal prosecutor? You want to represent the United States in federal court? You want to do justice, protect the public, and enforce federal laws? How exactly do you do it? Many young attorneys are interested in becoming an Assistant United States Attorney (also known as AUSA). This article offers some practical advice.

The United States Attorney is the top federal law enforcement official for the federal district in which he or she resides. States may have one or more federal districts. Each district is managed by its respective U.S. Attorney. Typically, a U.S. Attorney’s office will have a criminal, civil, asset forfeiture, and appellate division.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys (i.e., those attorneys managed by the U.S. Attorney for that district) are experienced trial attorneys who come from a variety of backgrounds, including both the public and private sectors, as well as the military. Generally, the attorneys have five to seven years of litigation experience before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office. While many aspects of a particular applicant are considered, trial experience is the most significant requirement. A strong working knowledge of the Federal Rules of Evidence and Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure is important. An ability to master the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is a must. If your current practice area does not allow you much time in court, seeking out criminal pro bono appointments is a great way to supplement your skill set.

In addition to trial work, being well versed at the appellate level is also an asset. Many AUSAs handle their own appeals to the various U.S. Courts of Appeals. This requires experience with both written and oral advocacy, which is often very different from trial work.

To evaluate which districts are hiring, log on to the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) website, It lists AUSA openings around the country. While some positions are for a specified term (e.g., one to two years), others may allow for the opportunity to extend your term indefinitely. If selected for an interview, most applicants will be interviewed by a panel of three or more AUSAs, and, depending on how far the applicant makes it in the interview process, the U.S. Attorney for that district may also participate.

Once the interview process is complete and you are moved on to the next stage of recruitment, you must complete a detailed application with your complete education, employment, and personal background. Candidates must fully disclose any prior criminal conduct, as well as sign releases for information relating to, among other things, credit and tax history. DOJ conducts a background investigation based on this information, which may include a visit by an FBI agent to your law school professor or college roommate to find out about your past!

If the preliminary background check is completed without incident, it is time to start working. Most new AUSAs begin by serving as a probationary employee with DOJ for approximately twelve to fourteen months. In the meantime, DOJ conducts a full background investigation on your past. Although this can be an intimidating process, be sure to provide accurate and truthful information. Any false statements or inaccurate information during the employment application process may result in revocation of the position, as well as collateral consequences. See 18 U.S.C. § 1001. If the probationary period is completed successfully, you receive your AUSA credentials and a certificate from the United States Attorney General with your official date of service as an AUSA.

If selected as an AUSA, I am confident that you will find the position exciting, challenging, and rewarding.


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