Judicial clerkships are often described as a feather in the cap for any young lawyer. Read the bio of many successful lawyers, and you will find a prominent mention of their time as a law clerk. But what does a law clerk actually DO every day? Is it something you would enjoy, or just another box to check?
Like everything else with the law, the answer is “it depends!” Although you often hear about federal clerkships, there are clerkships available at every level. The day-to-day experience of being a clerk can vary almost as much as the day-to-day experience of being a lawyer. That said, there are a few things almost every law clerk will do every day.
As a law clerk, it is your job to help your judge with every aspect of their job. That means you will need to research the law! Some courts have a very specific jurisdiction, like a family or bankruptcy court, meaning you’ll take a deep dive into the specifics of your court’s expertise (and become somewhat of an expert yourself).
Other courts see a wide variety of civil and criminal cases, like a state or a federal district court. You will have to be a generalist, quick on your feet, to learn the nuances of the different matters that come across your desk every day. When I served as a clerk to a federal district court judge, I researched everything from a prisoner’s right to certain medical treatment to the rules for how much sleep long-haul truckers are required to get between trips.
In every clerkship, the skills you learn in your legal research and writing class will be crucial. Depending on the court’s resources, you may need to know how to go beyond online sources and dig into the case books – they really aren’t just for photo backdrops!
Often, the majority of your time as a law clerk will be spent drafting orders. After reviewing the motions submitted by the parties, listening to arguments, and researching the law, you will write an order that lays out your judge’s decision. Of course, you will work closely with the judge in this process to ensure it reflects her thinking. That said, some iteration of your words will likely end up in the final order!
This level of responsibility is both exciting and daunting as a young lawyer – especially when the court decides to publish an opinion, or the case is appealed. I still remember my hands shaking when I opened a link to the state supreme court’s decision on an appeal of one of “my” cases as a law clerk – two years after I finished my clerkship! Knowing that your phrasing may end up as precedentis an excellent motivator to hone your writing skills and produce quality work.
Dotting I’s and Crossing T’s
As you learn in law school, it is often just as critical to get the administrative details right as it is to get the law right. In every type of law, there are crucial deadlines and procedures that move a case from filing through trial (and appeals). You will work with your judge and court staff to ensure each of your cases is on track. Not only will you make sure the lawyers are meeting important deadlines, you will help keep track of the court’s obligations to respond to motions, set hearings, and guide the case.
You’ll find yourself counting (and counting again!) days between deadlines, reading the rules carefully to ensure you’re considering holidays, weekends, and anything else that may impact a deadline. You will also learn how important the experience and expertise of the permanent court staff is – they will almost always know the answer – but you will still read the rules a few thousand times during your clerkship to double-check!
In addition to gaining important hands-on lawyering skills, clerking is a fantastic opportunity to introduce yourself to your legal community. You will likely get to know your judge and other judges in the courthouse, the courthouse staff, fellow law clerks, and many other members of the bar. My judge made it a point to eat lunch with his clerks almost every day. Sometimes we talked the law, sometimes football, and sometimes the weather, but after a year of hard work and lunches, I knew my fellow clerks and I had a friend and mentor for life.
Even if you ultimately choose not to become a litigator, you will have experience, contacts, and inside knowledge that many lawyers don’t get until much later in their careers. This can be just as valuable to your career as the substantive and technical knowledge you gain during your clerkship.
And lest you think it’s all serious, sometimes being a law clerk can just be really cool! As a law student, I was a judicial extern for the state trial court, and I got to sit in on testimony about the safety of game days from the head of security for an NFL team. I will probably never look at a stadium parking lot the same way again!
Is it for You?
So, should you consider a clerkship? Absolutely! Clerking is an amazing introduction to the law, the legal community, and to being a lawyer. No matter where you end up, the skills you learn while clerking will make you a better lawyer. Better still, you will build incredibly important relationships with people in your legal world, people you might otherwise have to wait years to meet. Whether you’re starting 1L or about to graduate, it’s never a bad time to consider a judicial clerkship.
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