Is a Stint as an Assistant U.S. Attorney a Pathway to Riches?

Perhaps if you spend that stint in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan. Over at the Glom, David Zaring reports on his effort to identify what former federal prosecutors in Manhattan are doing these days. Out of 150 former federal prosecutors, he reports, “the large majority . . . are partners in white shoe firms in New York.” Zaring comments:

My guess is that a gig in the Southern District is the greatest path to wealth maximization in the federal government that there is – I say this impressionistically, of course, but the fact is that the financial regulators rarely get picked up by investment banks, and the SEC enforcer to partner rate is pretty low. And I think lobbyist salaries don’t match New York law firm salaries, while Pentagon procurement officials have far too difficult a tournament to win to get the payday of a job with Boeing. Which makes white collar the straightest path to law firm style riches.

That right there is pretty interesting, since crime never used to pay, either for the defendants or their lawyers. My suspicion is that the renumeration due to SDNY attorneys is a function of beefed up white collar enforcement, including the explosion of FCPA, and honest services fraud actions. It would be interesting to track the paydays of former prosecutors over time by the number of cases brought against corporate executives (was it lower in the 60s? did a Supreme Court opinion broadening fraud rules contribute to the future bottom line of Manhattan prosecutors? &c.). Indeed, though I don’t believe this could be the case, new kinds of financial enforcement could simply be examples of SDNY lawyers feathering their future nests. If you have views on this, since I’m noodling around on the issue, I’d love to hear them.

My guess is that these numbers don’t reflect beefed up white collar enforcement as much as the realities of who the SDNY tends to hire. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the SDNY is very competitive, and it tends to draw a lot of high-powered litigation associates from top New York firms. Those lawyers come to the SDNY and spend a few years to get trial experience. But they know that living on a government salary over the long term would require a pretty big shift in their lifestyles given the very high costs of living in or near Manhattan. So after they hit their minimum year commitment (3 or 4 years, if I recall), they cycle back to major law firms in more senior positions (either senior counsel or partner) and start earning serious coin.

It’s an interesting aspect of the SDNY: In my experience, the AUSAs there generally stay for a much shorter time than AUSAs in most other districts. Whereas AUSAs in other districts often stick around for a long time, AUSAs in the SDNY often do the minimum stint and then return to more lucrative practices. That’s my impression, at least.