An interview with Assistant District Attorney, Mark J. Mellett

Gavel and law books

Mark J. Mellett began his legal career in commercial law, working for a private firm. It wasn't long before his interest in criminal law led him to seek out opportunities. A combination of his father's past military service and acquaintances who had found success and experience working in the militaries Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps led him to join the Navy.

Mr. Mellett spent his first two years in the JAG Corps in Chicago, serving first as a defense attorney and then as head of the defense department. He then spent another two years as a JAG prosecutor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, including duties with the United States Attorney's Office as a Special Assistant United States Attorney, where he served as lead trial and appellate counsel for all civil litigation involving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in Hawaii. He is a recipient of the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, as well as receiving honors including the National Defense Service Medal, Sharp Shooter Pistol Medal and Naval Command Letters of Appreciation.

He received his undergraduate degree, a bachelor of arts in the Program of Liberal Studies, at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and after exploring other interests, went on to Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he served in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as a law clerk intern for a semester. He received his Juris Doctor in 1996, graduating cum laude. He is admitted to the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts bars.

He currently serves as Assistant District Attorney with the District Attorney's Office in Lancaster County, Pa.

“The biggest myth (about the profession) is that all lawyers are in it for the money. That is not the case. Lawyers working in the government make a modest salary and are not driven by the dollar sign,” Mr. Mellet tells LawSchools.com.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your career in the law, from the Navy to the Lancaster County, Pa., prosecutor's office.

I had an interest in criminal law in law school and after practicing a couple years in the commercial litigation area, I decided to make a change and try working in the criminal law field.

What influenced me to join the Navy and seek a position as a military lawyer, called Judge Advocate Generals (JAG), was that my father had served in the military and I had a couple friends who were JAGs. The Navy afforded me an opportunity for immediate courtroom experience in criminal law.

After going through basic training in Newport, R.I., and completing Naval Justice School, I was stationed at the recruit training base just north of Chicago, where I was assigned a position as a criminal defense lawyer. In that capacity, I represented sailors and Marines in courts-martial who were accused of violating the Code of Military Justice. After a two-year stint in Chicago, I was transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to serve as a prosecutor at the naval base. As chance would have it, once in Hawaii, I was given an opportunity to act as a Special Assistant United States Attorney and represent the Department of Defense and the Navy in civil litigation arising in Hawaii. In that capacity, I worked in the federal courts.

After about five years in the Navy, I decided to move on to other challenges. Having concluded that I preferred practicing in the criminal law field, as opposed to the civil, I sought a position as an Assistant District Attorney. I am licensed to practice in Pennsylvania, so I applied to numerous offices across the state and was offered a position in the beautiful, rustic county of Lancaster, Pa. I had thought Lancaster would be a sleepy community with little crime. But being at the crossroads of Philadelphia and Baltimore means the community has its share of crime, though the crime rate has fallen here in recent years due in part to good police work and tough prosecutors.

When did your interest in the law start? Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

As a teenager, I had a neighbor who was an attorney, and my high school football coach went to law school at night. Both were very intelligent and I greatly admired their interest in all subjects and their ability to think through problems and express themselves. My initial inspirations were the most influential, because they inspired me to go into law in the first place.

What differences and similarities do you find between your previous role as a prosecutor at the military level vs. your current assistant district attorney role at the civilian level?

There are many differences and similarities. I'll just address a few major areas. For one, my present position is a state position. I represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in criminal court. In the military, as a prosecutor, I represented the United States and the Navy.

The federal government and the states have their own laws and criminal procedures. The elements of the crimes are pretty much the same, like murder or theft, but how a suspect is charged, who decides his guilt or innocence and how a determination is made are different. For instance, in a jury trial in Lancaster, twelve local citizens sit in judgment of a case, and they have to have a unanimous vote for guilt or innocence. In the military system, the jury is called “members” and they are uniformed personnel. There can be less than twelve on a members panel, and their vote does not have to be unanimous; a service member can be found guilty with only a two-thirds vote.

What factors were in play in your decision to go into law at the prosecutorial level rather than into private practice?

I have done both, and I recommend any law student who is unsure to clerk for a civil law firm and either a district attorney's office or a public defender's office during law school. Each has its own rewards. What drew me to criminal law mostly is that it interests me. I tried civil law but did not take that much interest in it. Also, as a prosecutor, there is a sense that one is working to better our community as a whole and make it a better, safer place. Of course, the money is not as good as on the civil side, but prosecutors are not in it for the money. There is also a sense of honor one takes out of public service.

How have your experiences in the Navy contributed to your success?

Anyone who gets into law school and graduates is typically already is a disciplined person. But the Navy adds a toughness to the self-discipline that allows one to take on any circumstance, however large, with confidence. I think the Navy made me a tougher person, in a good way, which allows me to stand in the face of adversity and have confidence that I will succeed.

What do you enjoy most about career as a lawyer?

The subject matter interests me. I get to make a living doing something I enjoy.

What has been your greatest success thus far?

My greatest success was probably the federal jury trials I won as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney. I faced experienced counsel on the other side and take pride that I was able to meet the challenge.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the law in order to be successful at a professional level? Personal level?

I think it's more about taking an interest in the law. Some call it the “love of the law.” That can be defined as finding intellectual stimulation in the workings of the law. Also, one must be able to sympathize with the victims of crime and express their sometimes painful experiences to a judge or jury. A prosecutor must care about rectifying a wrong and getting dangerous people off the street.

Job Information & Advice

What exactly do you do as the assistant district attorney? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand? What are your key responsibilities?

I prosecute people charged with a crime, meaning I take a criminal complaint that begins a case charging the person with a crime and work the case up to a guilty plea or take the case to trial, depending on what the defendant does. I work to convict the defendant and have him sentenced to a fair punishment, provided I find that there is at least probable cause to conclude that the person in fact did the crime.

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you.

Government hours, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sometimes I have to work into the evening or on the weekends, typically right before trial week, but it is not that often.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?

A law student will learn to use legal research tools such as West Law and Lexis-Nexis, both of which are computer based research tools. While book research is not common anymore, I would encourage students to at least learn how to research from books, as you never know when the computer is going to crash and you will need to use the law library.

What are some common myths about the law profession?

The biggest myth is that all lawyers are in it for the money. That is not the case. Lawyers working in the government make a modest salary and are not driven by the dollar sign.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

The case load can be overwhelming at times. It's essential to be able to multi-task.

Best legal tip for a novice?

Do not compromise your ethics. It is better to lose with honor, than to win having compromised your integrity.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

Case load, deadlines set by the court and angry judges, not in that order.

What is your top pet peeve with the legal field?

Lawyers who do not call me back.

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of law?

I'm not sure of where one looks for civilian law firm jobs, probably in legal magazines or publications of the local bar associations. As far as government jobs, the federal, state and local governments have to publish notices of job openings and I would look for a web site that posts the notices.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating law school students?

Clerkships with judges, associate positions with law firms, starting your own practice, etc.

What are the hottest law specialties for the new decade?

I'm not really up on this, but I imagine artificial intelligence, computer type law, i.e. dealing with the Internet, are emerging specialties.

What career advice can you give to law school graduates who want to make a name for themselves, to stand out from the crowd?

Be one to volunteer to do the tough job or to take on responsibility, like doing trial work. If you are a young attorney in a firm that does not put you in a courtroom, do some pro bono work to get into the court. Take positions with the local bar association.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected the legal profession?

Greatly; legal research is much different now than it was 20 years ago.

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field?

Law regulating the Internet is of recent origin and is controversial.

Education Information & Advice

How did you choose your law school, Duquesne University School of Law?

A couple factors went into it. The major one was money. I knew I had to live at home for the first couple years, so I applied to schools near my parents' house. The second one was the size of the school. I prefer a small school over a large one. My class had less than 100 students, which allowed much more personal attention from the professors.

What did you like and dislike about your education?

I liked the fact that most of my professors were practitioners. Duquesne is known for having professors who actually work as lawyers. They bring a real world perspective to the class room. Having said that, the one shortcoming of most law schools is the relatively little real world experience a student gets before being sent out to practice. Someone can be licensed to practice law with no experience whatsoever. Law schools tend to rely on students working over the summer to get practical experience but I think they need to start requiring more of it.

How can prospective law students assess their skill and aptitude for the field?

I would say some important traits are liking to read and write, being self-motivated and disciplined and not minding hard work. As far as aptitude, that's a tough one to gage. Some may not be that great on multiple choice type questions, but are great talkers and arguers and would make effective advocates.

How has your education benefited your career?

My education gave me the basics from which to understand a legal issue, provide an analysis and express it clearly, I hope, in writing or orally. In law school, a student studies basic contract law, personal injury law, called torts, constitutional law, etc. These classes provided a student with the tools he or she needs to understand the legal problems that arise in people's lives. A legal concept, like the concept of breach of contract in contracts law, is like a hammer to a carpenter. Lawyers use such concepts to achieve understanding and make legal arguments in support of their client's case.

In retrospect, what do you know now, that you wish you knew before you pursued your law school education?

I wouldn't change a thing. I majored in classical literature and philosophy in college and this provided me a basis for the study of law. Then I didn't go straight into law school after college but explored other interests I had for a few years. This gave me a chance to really understand myself and approach law school as a mature person.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a law school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain area of the law?

Cost of tuition, location, size of student body and where one wants to practice after law school are some of the factors. I suppose some law schools are better than others in certain fields, like environmental law etc. However, I am not aware of the differences.

For students who are not real knowledgeable about the practice of law, I would recommend that they go in with an open mind and take many different elective classes that expose one to the different types of law. That way, one can compare the different specialties. The reality of it is that even though there is a tendency to specialize due to the complexity of some fields, most young lawyers do not choose what type of law they end up practicing in the first few years. Typically, a young lawyer hired by a firm will end up doing what that firm needs, which may be varied. For instance, many firms have a general litigation department which handles litigation coming from the different departments in the law firm, be it commercial, real estate or regulatory in nature. Thus, a well-rounded individual will be the most adaptable and have the tools to take on whatever is given them.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

I would advise potential law students not to get hung up on whether a certain law school is considered prestigious or not. Lawyers from lesser-known law schools serve as judges on our courts, hold important positions in government and have very successful careers as practicing lawyers. While having gone to a prestigious school may help in a competitive hiring situation, it does not necessarily mean that person will be successful. There are many factors that figure into whether one is considered successful. And those factors can be very personal, like whether it is really important to make a six-figure salary. It comes down to choosing a law school where the student will feel most comfortable, will be able to obtain a good education and will come out of law school with a good sense of self.

What can students applying to law schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Do well in college and prepare for the LSAT. Beyond that, I believe law school admissions, as most university admissions, look for a well-rounded person. So, I would encourage potential students to get involved in extra-curricular activities in college. Finally, I would not leave out the fact that one has special talents or activities that at first blush may not seem relevant. If one plays a musical instrument, or likes to paint, or is a marathon runner, put that down in the application. I had many interesting friends in law school with many different talents, and that it leads me to believe that those skills somehow played a part in making those people successful candidates.

What further advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in law?

Be opened minded, try different things and if one type of practice is not for you, try another. There are many ways to practice law. Not every lawyer is a trial lawyer. In fact, most probably never see a courtroom. Lawyers work in-house in companies, in government as administrators and in many other different capacities. In fact, many law school graduates and lawyers do not end up practicing law, but take the education and use it in other fields, like journalism or business. So, I would advise students to be open- minded, learn what's out there and find a place for themselves that will make them happy.

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