Before starting law school, I didn’t know what a judicial externship was. I can attribute my decision to apply to my professor and legal writing fellow, who were very passionate about working for a judge and constantly encouraged students to consider a judicial externship or clerkship. It was truly an amazing experience that I would recommend for any law student, no matter what kind of law you might want to pursue. Here are four reasons why externing for a judge would be an ideal way to spend your 1L summer:
1. See how cases are decided behind-the-scenes
The opportunity to work closely with an incredibly accomplished judge and their law clerks provided unique exposure to the judicial decision-making process that I wouldn’t be able to get in the classroom, or anywhere else. In my judge’s chambers, we would discuss all the cases together as a group before and after oral arguments. Through these discussions, I saw how the judge thought about various legal issues and the kinds of arguments he found compelling and not as compelling.
Since I was externing in the appellate court, I also saw what clerking in an appellate court might look like. Unlike in the district court, there are no trials, but rather oral arguments where only the attorneys come before a panel of judges. There was less activity going on in chambers — the days were usually quiet, creating an opportune environment to focus on your own research and writing. I did, however, have the opportunity to observe trials in the district court, which was an added perk of externing in the courthouse. This provided valuable information as to the type of court I might want to clerk in, if I have the opportunity to do a clerkship in the future, after law school.
2. Gain exposure to different areas of the law
Externing for a judge is a great opportunity to learn about new areas of the law. Unless you work in a specialized court like tax or bankruptcy, you will likely see several types of cases. I worked on cases involving disability, criminal, immigration, social security, and environmental law. Each area had its own learning curve, which presented the challenge of getting up to speed on a new area of the law, but the externship allowed me to explore areas of the law that I probably otherwise would not have explored!
3. Hone your legal research and writing skills, and see examples of effective (and not so effective) written and oral advocacy
As an extern, you do some serious legal research and writing! Every judge runs their chambers differently; the judge I externed for treated me like one of the law clerks, which meant that I was assigned my own cases. Over the course of two months, I wrote three bench memos and memorandum dispositions as well as two comment memos, refined through discussions with the law clerks and judge. I worked on my communication skills in presenting my analysis of the case to the judge and law clerks. And I observed oral arguments involving the cases I worked on, which was an interesting and cool experience.
Seeing several examples of parties’ briefs provided valuable insight into what makes a written argument compelling. I found myself more persuaded when the parties showed their work, not just giving conclusory statements but backing them up with facts and references to the record, and explaining the significance of the sections they cited. I found myself less persuaded when the briefs were confusing or went off track from the key issues. In oral arguments, I saw examples of strong advocacy, where the attorney directly and confidently addressed judges’ concerns, as well as examples of less effective advocacy, where the attorney failed to directly answer the judges’ questions or come adequately prepared.
4. Network with amazing law clerks and judges
Perhaps the best part of the externship was the opportunity to work with law clerks and a judge who were not only incredibly kind and smart but also just cool and fun people! We had lunch together every day with the judge (when he was in town) for as long as 2 hours, sharing Trader Joe’s snacks and talking about anything from baseball (Judge is a huge Chicago Cubs fan) and the latest Tom Cruise movie to how the judge was appointed to the bench and his travels around the world. The law clerks were wonderful resources, not just for answering questions about my cases but also offering helpful tips and encouragement on law school and job recruiting. The awesome part about being a judicial extern is that you can do practically anything with it — the experience opens doors to so many opportunities, whether you want to work at a law firm, a public interest organization, or in-house.
Externing for a judge and getting a behind-the-scenes view in a judge’s chambers at such an early stage in your career is an amazing and unique experience that I cannot recommend enough! Here is another angle on reasons to consider a judicial externship. If you aren’t sure what kind of judge you might want to work for, that’s totally okay! You can start to explore the various types of courts out there. And if you’re thinking about clerking for a judge after law school, start with this helpful overview and tips on how to get a clerkship.
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