What is a U.S. Attorney?

Federal criminal prosecution is performed through thousands of U.S. Attorneys’ Offices (USAOs) across the country who all work for the Department of Justice. Most states and major cities employ them through their District, County or State’s Attorney Offices. U.S. Attorneys are directly assisted by various lawyers who work for local, state and federal agencies.

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The Basic Statistics

At any given time, there are at least 90 U.S. Attorneys who are located in every state and special territories like Guam, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. They are appointed by the President and the approval of the Senate. Every judicial district has an assigned U.S. Attorney who acts as the chief federal law enforcement officer within their jurisdiction.

Attorneys pursue affirmative litigation, such as investigating federal housing discrimination, as well as defending the government, such as mitigating a class action lawsuit against a federal agency. They oversee civil cases, which are usually handled by assistants, and criminal cases, which could include drug or human trafficking.


There are between 5,800 to 5,900 Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSA) whose civil cases makeup anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of all federal cases. Most U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and District Attorney Offices offer volunteer positions to current law students and job opportunities to graduates who have passed the bar exam.

Regardless of the law student’s academic and career goals, working with some of the finest prosecutors, legal researchers and respected court officers provide valuable contacts and helpful experiences. First-year students who lack experience can make it up with their resume that demonstrates their writing, oratory and research skills.

The Job Interview

Typical AUSA interview questions explore the areas of knowledge, motivation, legal training, and ethical competence. Job applicants should be prepared to demonstrate their commitment to public service and the criminal justice system. Employers usually want job candidates to prove that they are truly committed to defending the government as opposed to the prestige that comes from highly public trials.

Ethical competence is tested through hypothetical scenarios that reveal the job candidate’s judgment quality, mental agility and communication skill. Law students can use summer jobs, moot court, clinical programs and externships to boost their resume. For example, California’s State Attorney’s Office website show externships available in tax, civil and criminal offices.

A Promising Career

Once hired, a U.S. Attorney will likely work in the larger criminal division, but they may be allowed to choose a specialization. This includes terrorism, financial crimes, and political corruption. On any given day, they may help FBI agents prepare a search warrant, question witnesses, before a grand jury or debate the constitutionality of evidence.

Those who work in the civil division have three career options. First, financial litigation through seeking monetary restitution owed to the government. This important work recovers billions of dollars lost because of fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement. Second, defensive litigation through protecting government departments and agencies. Third, affirmative litigation through enforcing federal laws and regulations.

U.S. Attorneys perform vital legal work that protects citizens, communities and the country as a whole. There are many job opportunities at different levels of the government. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that there are around 37,000 federal lawyers who make almost $68 an hour and $140,000 per year.