Working as a Cook County State’s Attorney: An Interview with CJ Orrantia, NDLS 2017

CJ graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 2017 and always wanted to work for the Cook County State’s Attorney. But budget woes rendered the year that he graduated one of the most difficult hiring years for that office. Tenacity, loads of past work experience over the summer and through the Chicago program in that office, and maintaining personal connections ultimately landed him his dream gig nine months after graduation. Read on for my interview with him about his pathway to the Cook County State’s Attorney…

KMB: Where are you working now?

CO: I am an Assistant State’s Attorney for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in Rolling Meadows, where I am doing misdemeanors.

KMB: What is your day to day life like there?

CO: I am getting lots of trial experience. It’s a high volume. I go to court in the morning and I have my own court call. We have three calls in a day. It’s possible to have one hearing or trial per day. It’s a lot of thinking on your feet and a lot of movement.

KMB: When did you first work for the Cook County State’s Attorney?

CO: I worked there in law school in juvenile court on the delinquency side in summer of 2016 and I worked in felony trial during the semester through the Chicago program.

KMB: What did you think of those experiences?

CO: The most important thing I would say is that the summer internships and programs like the Chicago program are a great opportunity and it’s really crucial to take advantage of those. They will help you determine what you want to do after graduation. If you don’t take the time to work in an office you’re interested in, you might end up somewhere you regret. Having the opportunity to see how a place works, especially through the Chicago program, was huge. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a great testing ground for trying something new.

KMB: You got hired on at the State’s Attorney in February. Walk me through your career search from graduation in May 2017 until getting hired in February 2018.

CO: I interviewed for an entry-level Assistant State’s Attorney position in 2017 while I was in law school but the soda tax got struck down so Illinois had a mess with the budget and they were unable to hire me (or anyone else) right after graduation.

After I graduated, I did the Bridge-to-Practice program with the State’s Attorney in the narcotics unit, where I reviewed arrest reports and candidacy of recent arrests for alternative prosecution programs they have like drug and veterans court. I did the program for one month.

Later, I heard from an old supervisor when I clerked in the State’s Attorney’s office who had left to go work as supervisor at the City Law Department. She heard I hadn’t been hired by Cook County after I graduated so she reached out to let me know there was a law clerk position open with the City. I worked with her in the Legal Information and Prosecutions Division as a paid law clerk. I was working in their administrative hearings courthouse. I would sometimes cover for corporation counsel in branch courts, covering the city call for ordinance violations. But I mostly did administrative hearings covering violations like drinking in public. I was at the city for a few months.

KMB: From there, how did you get hired on at the Cook County State’s Attorney?

CO: I kept in touch with people I had worked with during my time in that office over the summer and through the Chicago program. They encouraged me every now and then to check in and send an email letting the office know that if there was any position available, I was still interested. I did that and they reached out to me in January 2018 and told me that there was an available position and they wanted to offer it to me without an interview. (I had done the interviews in 2017 during my 3L year.)

Establishing personal connections by working there was huge. Without that, I wouldn’t have had a shot. I had somebody encouraging me and reminding me to reach out every now and then and check about open positions. That was really crucial. My contacts there had great advice for how to approach interviews as well.

KMB: What advice do you have for students who want to go into prosecution?

CO: Networking is everything. It is impossible to set yourself up for job search success without a personal connection or someone who can give you advice on what to put in your resume and what to prepare for in an interview to be your best. Even if it doesn’t work out at the original place you are applying to, those connections can help you elsewhere. They can recommend places to apply and suggest other places that are hiring.

KMB: How is paying back loans while working on a public service salary?

CO: I am currently using the LRAP program from Notre Dame and that is a huge help with making payments. I started making payments immediately after I graduated. LRAP is really a blessing honestly. I also keep spending under control and I am disciplined.

KMB: Do you have any other advice for law students?

Always have a backup plan. I was lucky that I had a network that helped me out when things didn’t pan out the way I planned them to. If I could change anything, I would have had a more concrete backup plan. Have somewhere else you can apply to and have a shot at being hired beyond just your first choice.

CJ is happy to be connected with current NDLS students who are interested in prosecution work, especially in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. Reach out to me and I will send you his email.

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