In my experience working with law students, I’ve found that many of them don’t know what a judicial clerkship is. This isn’t meant to be a dig; I didn’t know what they were until I was a practicing attorney, and the “clerkship” terminology can be confusing since we often refer to summer legal internships in the same manner.
A judicial clerkship can be a great way to begin your legal career. It’s important that you have an idea of what the work entails and why it’s a valuable experience so you’re able to make an informed decision about whether it’s something you want to pursue.
What is a Judicial Clerkship?
Most commonly, a judicial clerkship entails working with a judge for one to two years. These individuals are sometimes called “term” clerks, though most judges also have at least one permanent, “career” clerk. Thus, it is possible to make a career out of clerking. A clerk’s duties will depend on whether they are working at the trial or appellate court level and the particular judge’s needs and preferences. However, generally speaking, clerks do a great deal of research and analysis of statutory and case law; review motions, briefs, trial transcripts, and other documents submitted to the court; and draft legal memoranda and opinions for the judge.
A judicial clerkship is a unique opportunity to see how the judicial process works from the inside. It probably goes without saying that the experience is particularly valuable for future trial attorneys. It enhances the clerk’s ability to represent clients in litigation, to craft persuasive written and oral arguments, and to effectively present a case in court. It’s hard to overstate the benefit that comes from having this kind of front-row seat to the court process and seeing the lawyering strategies that are effective…or not so effective.
However, many successful transactional lawyers also began their careers as judicial law clerks. A judicial clerkship can demonstrate how documents drafted by lawyers in the course of a transaction can either help or harm the client’s case if the transaction ends up in litigation, and if you eventually become an in-house attorney, it’s possible that you’ll be managing litigation. I’ve yet to encounter any former clerks who don’t highly value their clerking experience and the relationship they established with their judge in the process.
Employers also recognize the value of a clerkship. Add the prestige and network that comes with clerking, and it’s not hard to see that the experience can open the door to a number of tremendous career opportunities. Not surprisingly, many law professors and judges were once judicial clerks.
What are judges looking for in a clerk?
A history of strong academic performance is universally valued, but excellent research and writing skills are particularly important given the nature of the work. Most judges prefer students who have been on law review or another journal or participated in moot court to ensure that they have the necessary legal research and writing skills to perform the duties of a judicial clerk. Many judges mention things like intellectual curiosity along with the types of qualities that are important to most legal employers – strong interpersonal and communication skills, for example. Some want their clerks to have a connection to the location or an interest in practicing there after clerking.
Because judges are usually choosing from a pool of highly-qualified candidates and work with a small staff in close quarters, the right personality fit is often a very important consideration that informs hiring decisions. Learning about the judge you’re interviewing with is helpful in this regard, but ultimately the key is to just be your authentic self and allow your personality to come through during the interview. Keep in mind that finding the right fit and a judge with whom you’ll mesh well is in your best interest as well.
How do I decide if I want to apply for a judicial clerkship?
1. Talk with Current or Former Clerks
One of the things you may have to think about is what type of clerkship to pursue. The insight you can gain from speaking with those who have a variety of different clerking experiences is invaluable. Not only can current and former clerks provide perspective that will help you to assess whether it’s something you should pursue, they can also give you advice on the application process. If you need help identifying former clerks, ask your Career Services Office for assistance, and remember that there are probably a number of them among your law school faculty.
2. Engage in Self-Reflection
Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself:
- Do I enjoy reading and writing about the law?
- Does working in this kind of close-knit setting with a judge and perhaps one or two other law clerks appeal to me?
- Can I work independently with very little supervision at times?
- Am I able and willing to relocate for a year or two? (To maximize your chances of landing a judicial clerkship, geographic flexibility is beneficial.)
- Can I invest in one or two years as a judicial clerk given my financial and personal obligations? (Although you may be earning a lower salary than you could make at a large law firm, the experience often pays professional and financial dividends in the future.)
3. Test the Waters through a Judicial Internship
Spending a summer or semester working with a judge and their law clerks is one of the best ways to determine whether a clerkship would be a good fit for you. There’s really no downside, as it’s likely to be a valuable experience regardless of whether you ultimately decide to pursue one.
To learn more about judicial clerkships, check out these other great resources:
- Podcast Episode 176: Talking about Judicial Clerkship with Kelsey Russell
- Podcast Episode 44: How to Get a Judicial Clerkship
- How to Get a Judicial Clerkship
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