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?