Cover Story
March-April 2022

How our office onboards new prosecutors

By Amy M. Eades
Assistant District Attorney in Brazos County

Prosecutors are no strangers to the hustle of managing a court’s schedule and juggling a full caseload. Now in my fifth year as a prosecutor, I’m surprised when my daily to-do list isn’t derailed by a crisis or two, but I wasn’t always so accustomed to this pace.

            Over the last two years, our office has gained four new prosecutors who are just starting their careers. Watching our newest teammates acclimate to the pace and weight of their new roles and integrate into our office made me wonder: How did I get here from where I began five years ago?

A shift in the office

There is a strong call to jump right in and be molded from the scrapes and bruises one will assuredly receive in the first year of prosecution. While lessons can be learned through challenges and few things can replace the honing of experience, the rise of restorative justice programs, such as pre-trial diversion, has changed the types of cases on the trial dockets. Many of the cases that are typically handled by young attorneys, such as low-level drug possession or those with first-time offenders, are diverted. This means that there are fewer opportunities for young attorneys to jump into trying lower-level felonies or misdemeanors. As opportunities for courtroom experience decrease, the need for training increases.

            Experienced and supervising attorneys in each office can bridge the gap to create a more direct route from a new attorney’s first day on the job to that person’s self-sufficiency. Over the last few years, COVID-19 and increasingly busy court schedules have required new attorneys to work more independently. In our post-pandemic office, our new attorneys need more frequent and structured support in addition to the on-the-job training they were receiving from court chiefs and their court teams.

            Building a formal training program takes the guesswork out of planning and benefits the entire office by ensuring that new attorneys have foundational knowledge to become successful prosecutors. We looked at the infrastructure and resources already in place within our own office to help them excel though training and mentorship. But we also asked if there is a better way.

 A new onboarding program

Inspiration can come from both familiar places and unexpected ones. When I was growing up, my mom told many stories at the dinner table about the challenges she faced and solutions she used as an employee, manager, and mentor in the corporate world. One such system was an onboarding program to train new employees on office philosophy and policies, as well as on technical skills required to complete daily tasks.

            Historically, our office has supplemented TDCAA’s formal training with informal, in-house “lunch & learn” courses on various topics on an as-needed or as-it-comes-up basis. These presentations are usually organized after someone does extensive research on a particular issue or discovers a nuance of law or procedure while preparing for trial. It has always been a priority in our office to spread knowledge and information as a team and create space for all of us to contribute based on their own skill sets or strengths.

            We built on the foundation of the “lunch & learn” training to create our New Prosecutor Onboarding Program (NPOP). It has two components: skills development and mentorship. In this article, I hope to give readers a look into our building and planning process, an overview of how the first round of skills development went, honest feedback, and our next steps.

Building and planning an onboarding program

The first questions we needed to answer to build our program were:

            1)         What do new prosecutors need to be successful?

            2)         What is the best way to provide those resources?

            Young prosecutors struggle with basic concepts that more seasoned attorneys forget we had to learn too. Do you remember learning:

            •          where to send subpoena requests

            •          how to read a computerized criminal history

            •          how to request certified copies of judgments

            •          how to cross-examine a witness

            •          how to negotiate and make plea offers

            •          how to use the county records system

            In the midst of drinking from the firehose in the first month or two of being a new prosecutor, there are also concerns about asking stupid questions and not knowing what they don’t know—the idea that they may be missing something without even realizing it because they have little to no context for the work that they’re doing.

            No magic potion can replace the deep well of information prosecutors gain with time and experience, through failures and triumphs. The hope for NPOP was to provide foundational knowledge of the information new prosecutors need in the first 30–60 days and, we hope, some much-needed context and relief from anxiety.

            Before building a program, I built a planning team—a brain trust. Each person in any office has a unique set of strengths: Some are top-notch researchers and writers, some are great at big-picture ideas and strategy, and others excel when it comes to time management and leadership. Each person’s assets contribute to the overall success of the office. It was important to include on the planning team people with knowledge and experience in teaching and prosecution; more importantly, I wanted people who were excited about building something new (and a little scary). I was lucky to find those things in two people who taught me as a new attorney: Ryan Calvert and Philip McLemore. Ryan is well-known for his years of experience in prosecution as well as is his love for and skill in teaching. Philip has been a prosecutor for eight years and was an educator before beginning his career as an attorney. When I spoke with them about my idea, they were both all in.

            We started in mid-March 2021 with the goal of having content, presenters, and schedule ready to roll out five months later. We split the training into two categories: soft skills and technical skills. Soft skills included office philosophy, case evaluation, plea offers, meeting with victims and witnesses, and negotiation. Technical skills included subject-matter training (search and seizure, controlled substances, family violence, etc.); trial preparation and advocacy; and administrative duties, such as using the county records system, requesting records, filing deadlines, accessing discovery on the county server, and expert witness and contact lists. The two lists were comprehensive and were intended to ensure that new prosecutors would have some knowledge of each topic by the end of the program.

            Beyond the subject matter, we also organized the topics based on what was most pressing and what would make the most sense for the flow of the program. Most topics were presented lecture-style by one or more people depending on the subject matter, but trial advocacy skills were taught in a mock trial setting. Some presentations were structured to include a practical application that required participation from the new attorneys. For example, after learning about our intake division, each new attorney would prepare and present a case for grand jury.

            Once the content map was finalized, we looked at the strengths and knowledge bases of the people we work with every day to identify the contributors for each topic. Our roster of presenters included District Attorney Jarvis Parsons and First Assistant Brian Baker, chief-level and mid-level prosecutors from every division, investigators, and victim assistance coordinators. Pulling in people from every division was a great way to expose the new attorneys to people they wouldn’t otherwise interact with in their first few months.

            By the end of all the planning and editing, our program featured one-hour training sessions that would happen two to three times per week for 13 weeks. We knew that this schedule would be heavy for the new attorneys who were learning new concepts, integrating into our office, and figuring out how to manage their time, and I felt that mentorship was an essential function of NPOP. The goal in establishing a mentorship program was to dedicate a friendly face for new teammates who could provide support on work-related topics or what’s going on in their lives.

            Through my own personal experiences as a young attorney and conversations with other prosecutors, a common obstacle to growth is the feeling that you are bothering someone by asking too many questions. To fill this gap, the new attorneys were assigned mentors who were outside of their direct court teams, and the two met weekly to discuss that week’s trainings or any other issues. This allowed new attorneys to ask questions they felt were too trivial to take to a chief, get feedback on cases from another perspective, and discuss time management and how they were adjusting to their new career.

            The program also allowed mid-level prosecutors serving as mentors to grow as leaders by developing their management and conflict- resolution skills, as well as by giving them some ownership of their new teammates’ success. With the overarching disclaimer that this program, the presenters, and the mentors were intended to supplement instruction from their chiefs, we also wanted to help our new coworkers add to their list of go-to people they could rely on for advice or questions in the future. 

How the first round went

Come August, it was time for our inaugural onboarding class, and it was not easy. There were many moments that I doubted the idea, what we had built, or the possibility of success. But we pressed on and I’m so glad we did.

            My years in the school band taught me that no matter how well-rehearsed a performance was, the first full run-through was always a little rough and scary. But the band simply played through the mistakes and noted the things that didn’t go well so that we could improve in the future. During NPOP’s first full fun-through, we hit rough patches, but I reverted back to these tenets: There will be moments that don’t go as planned, so make notes, recognize areas for growth and change, and keep going.

            Because it was important to see how everything worked together and to evaluate our big-picture strategy as it relates to the structure, pace, time commitment, and content of the program, I sat in on almost every training session to make notes about the things that went well, my observations, and any thoughts on how to improve. One thing I was looking for was consistency of information. A true testament to our office philosophy and mission was seeing threads of consistency weaving throughout each of the sessions. Despite the differences in the presenters’ style when it came to execution of ideas, the same themes were carried through from one session to the next. This unplanned repetition of information was a great surprise and something we plan to incorporate more intentionally in the future.

            I also paid close attention to the level and types of engagement during and after the sessions—I wanted to know what questions attendees were asking. Attendees included two attorneys who had been in the office for about eight months and two others who had only been in the office for a few weeks. This made for interesting evaluation of the program’s scheduling. While all of the questions were helpful and purposeful, it was clear that the two attorneys with months of courtroom experience and interoffice interactions had more context for the topics. For example, after a session about preparation for a hearing, one more seasoned attorney asked about a previous experience she had in court and what she could have done differently. I was pleasantly surprised to see that NPOP was creating space for the new attorneys to talk about their experiences, both good and bad, in the courtroom. From a planning perspective, it was also interesting to note that some aspects of NPOP may be better suited for a new attorney with six to nine months of experience. We plan to discuss such a change in the coming months.

            After the program, we asked the new attorneys to complete an anonymous questionnaire to gauge their satisfaction with the program including its structure, pace, time commitment, content, and presentation. Our goal was to provide positive support, so we wanted to know how beneficial and effective the program was (or was not). The responses suggested changes, such as providing more step-by-step instructions on certain tasks, changing the order of the subjects, shortening the sessions, and adding information regarding other county agencies, such as the jail or probation department.

            While the responses to the questionnaires remain anonymous, each participant shared some thoughts to be used in this article. Here are excerpts from what they had to say:

“I really enjoyed having a new speaker for each topic. This was a great way to work closely with much more experienced prosecutors in the office. Most of the time, we become very close and comfortable with our court team because those are the people we work with every day, try cases with, and see in docket. While that is a great way to learn, the onboarding program allowed for yet another way to help us learn from other prosecutors in the office as well, all who have different skill sets. It allowed me to feel comfortable enough to ask questions to prosecutors in the office. Now, a year since I started in this office, I feel like have I learned so much thanks to the onboarding program and the wonderful mentors I have met.”

“While learning from the experienced prosecutors in my office was exciting, it also triggered a fear that I think many new prosecutors can relate to—that I wouldn’t be as great as the prosecutors I admire. This concern was addressed from the beginning of the program. Each prosecutor who presented or led a practical exercise made it very clear that he or she started in the same position that we were in. Each of the experienced prosecutors in our office had to learn how to do this job—the right questions to ask for a tough cross-examination and how to do an effective voir dire. The onboarding program gave us a solid foundation and encouraged us to develop our skills and find our own style.”

“As a new prosecutor, almost everything can seem overwhelming and confusing. In learning from so many different people in the office, I could see different ways to approach each aspect of a case, including evaluating cases at intake, making plea offers, and preparing for trial. The opportunity to practice trial advocacy skills in a low-stakes environment and hearing about the way others approach those skills really helped me to refine how I prepare for court.”

“I came into this office as a first-time prosecutor. Having just graduated law school a few months prior to my first day and still waiting for my bar exam results, I had no context of what the reality of being a prosecutor really was. This job started at a full run, which means I was encountering situations and topics that I had no experience with and not much of an idea of where to start.”

There are so many barriers to entry—in life, in our profession, and within our own offices. Through programs like NPOP, we can knock down some of the walls that stop a brand-new prosecutor from being confident and effective. The same sense of camaraderie that is built in the well of the courtroom can forge ideas of what a new prosecutor’s first few months or years should look like. I hope that the lessons I learned during dinner conversations with my mom are just as helpful and inspirational to you and your team.

Our next steps

While the feedback from our new prosecutors shows that we made meaningful strides toward giving them the support and training they need to be capable and confident as quickly as possible, we also recognize improvements need to be made. A consistent note for change was that we bit off more than we could chew with our original 13-week framework in terms of the amount of information and the length of the schedule. The program’s time commitment added to the stressful schedules of our new prosecutors. It also became clear that there was a significant benefit to having a few months of courtroom experience before going through parts of the program. We will use this information to make sensible changes.

            This year, NPOP was our response to the growing demand on new prosecutors as well as the experienced prosecutors who work with them. Although the work on this project began in a conference room with coworkers, the true inspiration came many years before I became a prosecutor—around the dinner table with my mom. One of the greatest lessons we learned through this exercise is that this idea is not one-size-fits-all. The diverse experiences of the prosecutors within your own office are a great place to look as you start to ask questions about how your office can better prepare new prosecutors. My hope is that our experiment in innovation and change will spark conversations in other offices and that you strive to find answers that make sense for your people and organization.