A Summer Intern Receives Lessons on How to Be a Good Federal Prosecutor

Zaria, a Black woman, has black hair and is wearing a white blouse and black jacket.By Zaria Graham 

This summer, I had the pleasure of interning at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina. To preface, the United States Attorney is responsible for representing the federal government in virtually all litigation that involves the United States. In the Western District of North Carolina, U.S. Attorney Dena King leads a number of Assistant United States Attorneys and support staff in both Charlotte and Asheville. I cannot speak highly enough of this experience, which was simultaneously challenging, rewarding, and eye-opening. Despite the serious nature of the work, I am able to say that the ten weeks I spent at the United States Attorney’s Office were also fun. It was hard to go back to school!

As an intern for the office, I was able to work on a number of exciting projects. These projects included writing a sentencing memorandum, a prosecution memorandum in preparation for grand jury, and a brief on a particular issue requested by a judge after trial. I also helped with projects that were more investigative — for example, watching police officer body-worn camera footage to note any possible Fourth Amendment issues that could have occurred during a traffic stop and surveillance footage of a robbery, noting timestamps that may be useful for playback during a hearing.

I thoroughly enjoyed all the projects I worked on, but I must say that being able to argue in court on the record as a rising third-year law student was my favorite part. This summer, I was able to practice under North Carolina’s Student Practice Certification Rule, which allowed me to participate in court under the supervision of an Assistant United States Attorney. With this certification, I was able to conduct initial appearances, detention hearings and preliminary hearings in the Charlotte federal court. I was also able to go to Asheville, North Carolina, and do initial appearances with the Central Violations Bureau (CVB) docket, which has jurisdiction over petty and misdemeanor offenses that occur on federal property, like national parkways, national forests, and Veterans Affairs facilities. This experience allowed me to get comfortable standing up and arguing in court and allowed me to begin to develop my own prosecution style. I am grateful to the attorneys who supervised me for all of their advice, encouragement, and feedback and to the attorneys who allowed me to handle their cases.

While getting to participate in court was my favorite part of my summer internship with the United States Attorney’s Office, I learned that so much of the job of an Assistant United States Attorney happens outside of the courtroom. And it is this work that truly serves and protects the community. Attorneys routinely meet with investigators from a number of agencies, like the FBI, Homeland Security, and Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department to discuss investigations. Attorneys also conduct reverse proffers, which is when they present evidence they have to the defendant so the defendant can then make a well-informed decision about possibly accepting a plea agreement. Additionally, attorneys prepare by conducting what the office called “whiteboards,” which are meetings where the attorney who is preparing a case for trial presents the evidence and their arguments to the other attorneys on their team to get feedback, answer questions that members of the jury could possibly have, and iron out any issues they believe may come up during trial. These various meetings were interesting because it is the part of prosecution that is not seen on television but can make all the difference in a case, and even determine if there is a case or trial at all.

Overall, this summer internship completely exceeded my expectations. I was able to do and see more than I would have had I spent the time merely researching in a cubicle. I saw two federal trials from beginning to end, with one being a white-collar Medicare fraud case and the other being a drug trafficking and firearm case. Getting to see two trials at the opposite ends of the criminal spectrum was telling, and it was interesting how differently they had to be handled because of their completely different subject matter.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention all of the intern events the United States Attorney’s Office set up throughout the summer. Interns were able to attend weekly lunches that were hosted by a different judge each week with the judicial interns at the federal courthouse, we toured the FBI, attended a drug dog presentation, listened to a presentation by the U.S. Marshals Service on use of force and got to do virtual reality shooting scenarios set up by them, and so much more.

This summer internship confirmed for me that a prosecutor can affect change just as much as a defense attorney. The attorneys I worked with participated in progressive and smart prosecution and considered things like a defendant’s background, living situation, and substance abuse issues at detention or sentencing hearings. My overall experience solidified for me that being a federal prosecutor is a career goal that I will continue to work towards. Although it was only ten weeks that I spent at the United States Attorney’s Office, I was able to see how someone could make a long career out of doing this type of work. The work is challenging, yet rewarding, and there are times when it is really fun. But most importantly, I feel like the attorneys I worked and interacted with this summer were amazing examples of what a “good” prosecutor is, and the way they decide to prosecute, or not prosecute cases at times, allows them to say that they did the right thing at the end of the day. This is what it is all about, and I would like to pursue a career that allows me to say the same thing.

I advise other law students to seek out internship opportunities with the Department of Justice, district attorney’s offices, and positions at the county level in order to experience work in the public service field, in the hopes that it will ensure that this type of work is what they actually want to do. I also advise law students to be a sponge and soak up as much as they can from the attorneys they get to work with. Though an internship can seem intimidating at first, given the serious nature of the work, students should not let that deter them from asking questions, offering opinions (when asked), and “going for it” on the job. In an internship, students should also seek out work, rather than waiting for assignments to be given. Lastly, for rising third-year law students, I suggest getting the North Carolina’s Student Practice Certification, which will assist students in having a summer experience that is all the more versatile, enriching, and exciting.

Zaria Graham is a third-year law student at North Carolina Central University School of Law. Zaria received a $1,000 scholarship from the  NCBA’s Government & Public Sector Section to support her internship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office (W.D.N.C.) in summer 2023. Each year the GPS awards one or more scholarships to law students who show demonstrated interest in public service and who work in an unpaid summer internship in a federal, state, or local government office in North Carolina.