(left to right) Donald Paul Geary, of the Cobb County District Attorney's Office, D. Victor Reynolds, the.Cobb District Attorney, and Matt McCoyd in Marietta, Ga.
(left to right) Donald Paul Geary, of the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, D. Victor Reynolds, the.Cobb District Attorney, and Matt McCoyd in Marietta, Ga. (Rebecca Breyer)

Just as this year’s crop of law school graduates hits the job market, the Cobb County district attorney’s office has started an apprenticeship program in conjunction with Emory University School of Law’s trial practice center.

The unpaid apprenticeships are a way for aspiring prosecutors to get a foot in the door in a grim job market while helping the office cultivate top talent for the future, said Don Geary, Cobb’s chief assistant district attorney.

“We want to produce top prosecutors. They’re learning, and we’re growing prosecutors for the state of Georgia,” Geary said. “Right out of law school it is hard to walk into a prosecutor’s office with very little experience. We are an opportunity for them to gain experience while they are trying [to get a job].”

Geary plans to recruit between 10 and 14 new lawyers for a one-year stint, but he said the duration is flexible. “If after six months someone gets a job with the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, we’re not going to tell them they can’t go.”

There are 10 superior court judges in Cobb, so that size class allows one apprentice for every courtroom plus a few for special teams, such as appellate, Geary said. The class could be larger if “I can actually make them productive and not waste their time or my time,” he said. “I’m not going to bring anybody in that I can’t give real experience.”

“[Cobb DA] Vic Reynolds is very supportive of this. He’s going to make sure we’ve got the assets we need to make this happen,” Geary added.

Although he’s developing the program with Matthew McCoyd, the associate director of Emory Law’s Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, Geary said it’s open to graduates of any law school. He estimated that about one-third of prosecutor offices around the state have started using apprentices, including Fulton and DeKalb counties.

The Cobb DA’s office has just over 40 lawyers, so an apprentice class of 10 to 14 is a relatively large group to train. “It is a lot of work for us,” Geary acknowledged. “These law students are eager, like sponges, to learn, but if I tell them to indict a case they can’t do it.”

It takes about three or four months for them to become productive, he said.

Geary said the apprentices will learn to do everything his prosecutors do. “We will teach them how to evaluate a case, indict a case, put a file together, prepare for arraignment, deal with pre-trial motions and prepare for trial. If a case pleas, how to take the plea. How to deal with victims of crime.”

The apprentices will start work after they take the state bar exam in July. The Georgia Supreme Court’s law school graduate rules allow them to work under the supervision of a prosecutor until they gain bar licenses.

Genesis in recession

Geary and McCoyd ran a similar apprenticeship program when they worked together in the DeKalb District Attorney’s office. Geary was DeKalb’s chief assistant district attorney until moving to the Cobb DA’s office 1½ years ago, and McCoyd was a prosecutor there until going to work for Emory Law in 2013.

McCoyd started the DeKalb program in 2009, after the recession hit. He got the idea when third-year students on Emory Law’s mock trial team, which he has helped coach for many years, told him they were being deferred by firms where they’d accepted jobs.

Some firms, primarily in New York, were offering deferred graduates half-pay if they took public interest jobs in law, McCoyd said, and so he thought of offering them unpaid apprenticeships. He started cold-calling New York firms to find out if they were deferring first-year associates, then asked if they needed public interest jobs and would be interested in coming to Atlanta. They were, he said.

The apprenticeship program continued after firms stopped deferring first-years, McCoyd said, because law school graduates were willing to work unpaid to gain trial experience in the tough job market.

It is extremely difficult for a lawyer with no trial or prosecution experience to get a job with a large metro DA’s office, he said. “That’s why this is sustainable. You can work as an apprentice for a year and then you’ve got the experience to get hired here or go to another office.”

Geary said lawyers seeking prosecution experience generally must start in a solicitor’s office or in a smaller circuit outside of Atlanta.

He considers only experienced prosecutors when an opening comes up in his office because there are so many qualified candidates. “We get applications from people who have prosecuted for years. There are a lot of people outside of metro Atlanta who want to get in metro. We don’t have to look at anyone with no experience.”

The DeKalb DA’s office went on to hire many of its apprentices, Geary said, adding that at one point, 10 of the 45 prosecutors in the office had apprenticed there first.

Other Georgia prosecutors’ offices hired them as well because of their courtroom experience, he said, and one apprentice got a job as a litigator at King & Spalding. “He did nine trials in one year,” Geary said.

Geary said he likes hiring apprentices because he already knows if they can do the job. “If I see a résumé on a piece of paper, I know very little about this person. If I talk to them in the office, I still do not know much. If they work for me for six months, I know what I’ve got.”

The DeKalb program is still going, said DeKalb prosecutor Antonio Veal, who oversees it. The DeKalb DA’s office accepts 10 to 15 unpaid apprentices each year who start in late summer, after they’ve taken the bar exam.

The Fulton County DA’s office started a similar program three years ago. It has trained four fellows since then and five new fellows will start this summer, said Yvette Jones, the office’s spokeswoman. Most of them already interned for the office during law school, she added.

The Cobb DA’s office has a tacit agreement with Emory Law to use their graduates, Geary said, but the program is open to all law school graduates. He’s already accepted one apprentice from the University of Georgia. “We want to get the best [candidates] we can and steer them toward prosecution,” he said.

Emory is the only law school in the state that offers a “bridge-the-gap” stipend to recent graduates with unpaid law jobs in the public sector, generally for prosecutors, public defenders and judges. The stipends, which the school started offering about four years ago, are for up to $1,500 a month for a year.

Last year, one-fifth of Emory Law graduates who landed full-time legal jobs took advantage of the stipends—62 out of 292 graduates. That pushed Emory’s placement rate for full-time legal jobs to 83.6 percent—a full 15 percentage points higher than at UGA, which had the next-highest placement rate (68.4 percent) for Georgia’s five law schools, according to data the American Bar Association collects from the schools.

Nationally, only 57 percent of 2013 law school graduates secured full-time jobs requiring a law degree within nine months of graduation.

Geary said the Cobb program is still considering applicants. Interested graduates should send a cover letter and résumé to don.geary@cobbcounty.org and mmccoyd@emory.edu.

If I see a résumé on a piece of paper, I know very little about this person. If I talk to them in the office, I still do not know much. If they work for me for six months, I know what I’ve got.

—Don Geary