Working as a Federal Prosecutor in Chicago: An Interview with Peter Salib, AUSA

AUSA jobs are exciting, highly sought after positions. So if you’re interested in becoming an Assistant United States Attorney someday, you need to plan out your career and think strategically about how to make yourself an excellent applicant.

Last week, I sat down with Peter Salib, who works as an Assistant United States Attorney at the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) in the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago to talk about his career path and how he became an AUSA. If you’re looking for advice on steps you can take to make yourself a competitive applicant for an AUSA job, this interview will help shed some light.

KMB: How long have you been working for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago and what types of cases are you currently working on?

PS: I have been working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office here in Chicago for 7 years. I now primarily work on national security and cybercrime cases.

KMB: Tell me about your background and your law school experience.

PS: I am a first-generation child of Egyptian parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Being raised by my parents in a bi-lingual home in suburban Philadelphia, I learned and now speak fluent Arabic. I went to Temple University for law school, and Drexel for undergrad. I switched from engineering to IT while at Drexel and did three IT-related six-month internships. I thought I would go into that field until I took a computer ethics class, which had material on the federal copyright act, privacy, and piracy issues and I became interested in the law.

KMB: What kind of work experiences did you get during your 1L summer?

PS: My plan was to be an IP attorney based on my IT background and take the patent bar. My first summer, I initially didn’t get a job, so I enrolled in Temple’s summer study abroad program in Rome, Italy for five weeks. After I came back, a friend introduced me to a solo IP practitioner in the Philadelphia suburbs and I ended up doing patent work for him three days a week. While it was a valuable experience in seeing patent work first-hand, I ended up concluding that IP/patent wok wasn’t for me. So going in to my 2L year I had to come up with another plan.

KMB: So after realizing patent law was not a good fit, where did you go from there?

PS:  I signed up for Temple’s nationally recognized integrated trial advocacy program where each week we’d have a traditional lecture and then follow it up in a 12-person section where we would put in to practice what we learned in a mock-trial setting. After having gone to court fighting my own traffic tickets while in undergrad, and combined with what we were doing every week, I fell in love with trial work. I then did OCI and applied to every law firm, in addition to the Philadelphia Public Defender’s Office and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.

While I had an interview scheduled with the Public Defender’s Office for January, I was extended an early offer by the D.A.’s Office in November. I didn’t have a preference to either defense or prosecution while going through the trial ad program. So I asked my trial ad teacher what to do because I was considering working for the public defender but I only had two weeks to decide on my offer from the D.A.’s Office. She suggested I accept the D.A.’s Office offer and I did. (She was a public defender and did Navy JAG before she taught trial ad.)

Of the 25-30 people in my law school class who worked as prosecutors and public defenders over the 2L summer, only one person from each class switched to the other side after graduation. So I guess you could say that prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices are very good at motivating their interns to continue in the good work for each respective office.

KMB: Did you get an offer from the Philadelphia D.A.’s Office for after graduation?

Yes. My exit interview at the end of the summer was also my hiring interview for a full-time position after graduation at the Philadelphia D.A.’s office. I was fortunate enough to receive an early offer to work as an ADA after graduation. By November of my 3L year, I had a job.

KMB: Did you enjoy your work at the D.A.’s Office? What is the most interesting project you did there?

PS: Absolutely. During my first three years in the Office I had done hundreds of preliminary hearings, bench trials and was about to start trying jury trials. That was the most rewarding work—advocating for victims of crime and giving them a voice in the community. Shortly after my 4th year started I was assigned to the major trials unit trying first-degree felony jury trials.

Mid-way through that year I was asked to work with three supervisors who would implement the newly elected District Attorney’s initiative on geographic prosecution. This entailed aligning the criminal justice system with the Philadelphia Police detective divisions so that cases would stay with the same team of prosecutors, defenders, and judges, so that the cases could be more effectively and efficiently adjudicated. The Philadelphia D.A.’s Office is the 4th biggest county prosecutor’s office in the country so the reorganization project was a massive undertaking.

From about April to November of 2010, we reorganized the entire system. We consolidated the branch courts, centralized all cases to the downtown courthouse (with each detective division assigned one floor where all the cases would be heard in varying courtrooms), and realigned the office and staff accordingly.  We then staffed each unit with ADAs of varying levels of experience so that most cases would be handled by the same team of prosecutors.

Throughout the reorganization process, we conducted presentations with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, met with trial judges, the Public Defender’s office, and worked with various stakeholders such as, victim-witness services, probation, pre-trial services, the county jails, and any other relevant stakeholder you can think of. The Supreme Court got behind the D.A.’s initiative and made the reorganization happen.

KMB: How did you get interested in becoming an AUSA?

PS:  I externed for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia while I was in my third year of law school. My experience in that office was very different from the constant activity and court hearings I experienced at the D.A.’s Office my 2L summer. It was fairly quiet in the USAO. My first impression was that a job as an AUSA was muted with little action. That misperception was quickly erased when we were able to watch a massive federal criminal trial during that semester. A number of high-ranking Latin Kings were on trial for racketeering and murder charges. There was nothing mundane about that case and it peaked my interest that I now fully understand.

At the end of my 2L summer, one of my mentors who was a homicide D.A., told me that the National Black Prosecutor’s Association was holding their annual conference in Philadelphia at the end of the summer. She invited me to volunteer at the conference so I did. I met tons of people there, including AUSAs, which got me further interested in that career path.

KMB: How did you get your AUSA job in Chicago?

PS: During my third year in the D.A.’s Office, my mentor from the homicide unit had left the office the year before to be an AUSA in another part of the country. She called me and said that a lot of USAOs would be interviewing candidates at the National Black Prosecutor’s conference. By this time I was ready to seriously consider becoming an AUSA and decided to fly out and attend the job fair.

I interviewed with 4 to 5 offices at the job fair and, in addition to interviewing, I got incredibly helpful tips on how to improve my application. I worked on my resume and writing sample and submitted applications to USAOs all around the country. I Interviewed in a couple of offices and then applied to the Chicago USAO. I was also scheduled to interview with another USAO when I got the offer from Chicago. I just cold applied to the Chicago office and had only been to Chicago one time in my life when I interviewed for the job.

I applied to every office I could to be an AUSA while landing a few interviews. If you want to be an AUSA, and if your family situation allows it, my advice is to canvas the country with your application because it gives you a better chance of getting the job and conveys a commitment to wanting the job.

KMB: Tell me about your AUSA interviews in Chicago.

PS: During my interviews in Chicago, I had to explain why I wanted to be a federal prosecutor and leave the D.A.’s Office. That was the threshold question. The other issue I had to address, was why I wanted to be a federal prosecutor in Chicago when I had no obvious connection to the city or the USAO here. I explained that my wife traveled to the Midwest regularly for her job. We wanted to settle down and have a family and it made sense for me to move to Chicago so she could do less traveling.

After the first rounds of interviewing, I was asked to fly back and do more rounds. I flew back out a few weeks later for the final interviews and a month or so later, I was offered the position as an AUSA.

KMB: I have heard that it is almost a requirement to have a federal judicial clerkship to get hired as an AUSA. Is that true?

PS: A federal judicial clerkship will always help a candidate become an AUSA. But there are numerous AUSAs I work with who were not clerks. I didn’t have a federal clerkship. There is not just one track for getting a job as an AUSA. We do see a lot of judicial clerks as applicants but we hire people with varied legal backgrounds, including, among others, former state prosecutors and litigators in private practice.

KMB: What is your advice to students and graduates who are interested in landing an AUSA job in the future?

PS: Every AUSA job posting for my office gets hundreds of applicants for only a handful of positions. Needless to say, it is very competitive.

This goes without saying, but whatever your practice area is, be excellent. Work as hard as you can and do everything you can do to be the best at what you do. Because if you do get a job as an AUSA, that is what will be expected of you here. The other suggestion I have is to continually work on your writing. Most of what we do is written work and the quality of your work reflects on the whole office. For state prosecutors who wish to apply, make sure you maintain your writing skills anyway you can. Volunteer to do an appellate brief. File written pre- and post-trial motions, even if that is not the practice in your office.

Another great way to get exposed to what we do as AUSAs and to see if it’s the career for you, is to intern at a USAO in any district or in one of the many components of the DOJ headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Our office has interns and externs year-round and the deadlines are very early, so stay on top of the internship postings that go out every semester. Lastly, look in to the DOJ Honors Program and apply during your 2L summer. If you’re hired, you’ll be an AUSA or trial attorney right out of law school.

If you’re interested in getting in touch with Peter, I am happy to connect you. If you want to start strategizing and planning your career to set yourself up to be a successful AUSA applicant in the future, the CDO is here to help.

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