After six years of working at prestigious law firms, Daniel Friedland jumped ship, took a big pay cut and joined the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
"It's important for me to be involved in public service," said the 31-year-old Friedland, who has been prosecuting misdemeanor drunk driving, assault and battery cases at courthouses across the county. "Working for the D.A.'s office is a great way to make a difference, and I wanted to make a difference in the town I grew up in."
Friedland is one of 99 new prosecutors -- also known as "baby D.A.s" -- joining the district attorney's office this year. They are the first prosecutors the county has hired in more than four years.
"We're all thrilled," said Nancy Lidamore, head deputy of the hard-core gang unit. "People are able to be freed up because they're getting new D.A.s in the branch offices."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Kelly Jean Chun, head deputy in charge at the Metropolitan Courthouse, said the new prosecutors -- some as young as 25 -- are infusing the office with new energy.
"There were a lot of tired D.A.s working long hours, doing trials back to back," Chun said. "Seeing these new D.A.s is refreshing."
Friedland and 24 others -- some who just passed the bar, others with years of legal experience -- began training in January. Groups of 25 arrived in April and May. A group of 24 is due in September.
A $5-million increase in county funding to the district attorney's office, the first significant budget boost since chief prosecutor Steve Cooley was elected in 2000, helps pay for the new hires.
When Cooley took office, he had 1,042 lawyers. But after three years of budgets that remained essentially flat near $154 million, he imposed a hiring freeze and did not replace prosecutors who had retired or left for other jobs.
Branch offices shrank, as did the staffing of key units, including hard-core gangs and sex crimes. Others, including elder abuse, environmental crimes and high-tech crimes, were eliminated as stand-alone units.
By last December, the office had dropped to about 890 lawyers.
"It was like a slow amputation of your hand," said Bill Mangan, the district attorney's director of management and budget. "Now we're getting our fingers back."
Being a government lawyer -- in particular a prosecutor -- has become increasingly attractive to law school graduates in recent years, career counselors say. The starting pay at law firms can be more than double what a district attorney offers. But the late nights and weekends required for many firm jobs can make prosecutor jobs more attractive.
"It offers purposeful work, a decent income and reasonable hours," said Graham Sherr, a former legal headhunter and now assistant dean for career services at Loyola Law School, which is sending more than 20 of its graduates to the district attorney's office this year. "Government lawyers tend to be the most satisfied lawyers I've encountered.
"In the early '80s, if you graduated from a good law school, you could walk into a district attorney's office and get hired," Sherr said. "In the last 10 years, it has become super-competitive."
Hailing from law schools all over the country, the 54 women and 45 men were picked by Cooley from about 700 applicants.
Cooley, who interviewed every candidate, said he looked for more than academic achievement.
"A lot of what we do here is not brain surgery. You have to care, care about what you do," Cooley said. "You're looking for a spirit, a sense of mission."
Friedland, who said he graduated in the top 10% of his class at Stanford Law School, regrets that because of a hiring freeze two years ago he could not join the D.A.'s office until now.
The former associate at O'Melveny & Myers in downtown Los Angeles and Venture Law Group in Palo Alto shares a windowless office with two other prosecutors and earns about $55,000. The starting salary of a first-year associate at most big Los Angeles law firms is $125,000 or more, and end-of-year bonuses can bring the total compensation to $200,000, according to a salary survey by a legal website.
"Financially, it makes no sense, but it's been even better than what I hoped it to be," Friedland said.
"I feel lucky to be here," he said. "All too few people in this world enjoy their job."