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The Importance and Value of Judicial Clerkships - Why Clerk or Not Clerk

published February 15, 2018

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Summary: Clerkships are regarded as one of the highest and most noted achievements a law student can have throughout their three years of law school.
The Importance and Value of Judicial Clerkships - Why Clerk or Not Clerk
  • There is little doubt that a clerkship can markedly add to your law school career.
  • Clerkships are highly touted and looked upon very positively by many law firms.
  • In fact, newly hired associates who have experienced prestigious clerkships have received bonuses up to $500,000.
  • But be warned: To be offered a clerkship, you first better score very well on your LSAT, be a top-notch law student, as well as retain other law-related accolades under your belt.

Clerkships are regarded as one of the highest and most noted achievements a law student can have throughout their three years of law school.

Defined as an invaluable experience by many legal sources, including top law firms, clerkships provide real-world legal training and growth opportunity all lawyers can benefit from, regardless of their practice area.

A clerkship, essentially, spans a predetermined time of one to two years in which a law school student clerks for a judge. Those judges can be:
  • Appellate Judges
  • Federal State Judges
  • Federal Judges
  • Supreme Court Judges

The benefits of a judicial clerkship is that at the beginning of your law school career, a clerkship gives you the opportunity to experience and view the justice system from the perspective of a judge.

A clerkship is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event, as throughout your law career, you might never again have the opportunity to gain an insider's view of how judges make decisions and respond to different methods of advocacy.

Another benefit of a clerkship is that it allows you to introduce your thoughts and beliefs to the actual creation and interpretation of the law – and this is without having to become a judge.

According to the University of Wisconsin Law School, clerkships are also beneficial toward:
  • Improving and refining your analytical, research, writing, communication, organizational and interpersonal skills (free of the pressures of advocacy and billable hours).
  • Gaining exposure to a breadth of substantive and procedural law.
  • Engaging in a strong, supportive mentoring relationship with a judge.
  • Gaining a unique perspective on how judges think and how chambers and courtrooms operate.
  •  Learning the difference between good and bad advocacy from reading briefs and watching oral arguments and assessing their effects on judicial decision making.
  • Becoming a member of an active network of former clerks.
  • Spending a year or two after law school exploring career options and networking (because of the experience and training, a clerkship is a credential valued highly by law firms, public interest organizations, government agencies, corporations and other employers).
  • Experiencing a new location and/or become familiar with the Bar where you plan to practice.

Clerkships are of course reserved for law students who reside at the top of their class, which in many ways makes sense. According to Carey Worrell of Magoosh, law clerks analyze and determine case outcomes, read written arguments submitted by lawyers, research the merits of those arguments, brief the judge on the arguments, and then draft or assist in drafting opinions setting out the court’s decision. In short, most federal court opinions today have at some point been substantially drafted by law clerks.

Additionally, law clerks observe trials and other court proceedings and help prepare the judge to preside over proceedings by compiling exhibits, cases or other information.

Why are clerkships important?

As you probably know, or will soon find out as you begin law school, much more needs to go into one’s law school experience toward gaining a clerkship than just getting good classroom scores. Quite honestly, any so-called student can do that.

Law, of course, is a different animal; high marks don’t in any way guarantee a recently graduated lawyer a big-time legal position inside a big-time downtown law firm. In addition to their grades, there are a few key takeaways a law student needs to take to make them attractive to large law firms.

While we immediately think of a school’s law review, legal clinics, potentially tutoring newer legal students, or participating in other extracurricular legal-related activities, can add up with the addition of strong grades, to a strong associate’s position within a notable law school, none of this can compete as solidly to a clerkship with a notable judge. With that accomplishment, law firms will see you as more experienced than other law school graduates who simply went to class and nailed down straight-As.

In short, a strong clerkship in which you were able to learn a judge’s interpretation of the legal process, all while infusing your own influence into the judge’s decision, can benefit you as a well-rounded attorney, and as a well-rounded attorney, you can be that much more of an asset within the law firms to which you’ve applied.

And if this doesn’t sway you, maybe knowing that most large law firms offer bonuses to attorneys who have prior clerkships that frequently reside within the $50,000 range and higher. Some very prestigious clerkships, such as a clerkship with a United States Supreme Court judge, can potentially win you a $300,000 bonus just to agree to come onboard.

When should I prepare myself for a clerkship?

While many clerkship-hopeful law students assemble their resumes, writing samples and recommendation letters in the first or second year of law school, it’s always better to plan ahead at an earlier date.

By earlier, we mean while you are still in undergraduate school, and especially before you begin preparing for the LSAT. Yes, that’s right, you need to start that early for your clerkship, especially because so much of obtaining a clerkship is dependent upon your LSAT scores.

In other words, the higher you score on your LSAT, as well as the less times you take the exam, the greater are your chances to obtain a solid clerkship with a notable judge.

Oh yeah, and you’ll also want to go to the best law school possible. Strong LSAT scores, attending a law school with renown pedigree, obtaining good grades, and accumulating a high-level extracurricular legally related activities such as being appointed to your school’s law review, will certainly give you the boost toward a prestigious clerkship.

Types of Clerkships and their Duties

Provided by the University of Wisconsin law school, this list outlines the typical responsibilities of a clerk depending upon the type of court in which they have their clerkship.

Judicial Clerk

Depending on the judge and the type of court in which they sit, the duties of a judicial clerk can vary. Typical tasks include reviewing pleadings and briefs, conducting legal research, writing memoranda and draft opinions, editing, proofreading, providing oral briefings, and observing court proceedings. The position may also include some administrative duties, such as maintaining the chambers' library, assembling documents, and assisting with trials and oral arguments.

Federal Clerkships

United States Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court justices typically are authorized to hire four clerks each for a one-year term. Retired Supreme Court justices can hire one clerk; the work for these justices varies, ranging from sitting on Court of Appeals cases when the justice sits as a circuit judge, to being on loan to the chambers of the justice who replaced the retired justice. Almost without exception, the justices only hire clerks who have clerked for at least one year for another judge, most frequently at the federal appellate level.

United States Courts of Appeals

There are thirteen federal judicial circuits, each with a court of appeals. While there are certainly similarities among the circuits in the types of cases heard, different circuits also often hear different kinds of cases. For example, the D.C. Circuit hears a great deal of administrative law cases, but not many criminal law cases; the Second Circuit tends to hear numerous financial and corporate law cases; and the Sixth Circuit tends to preside over numerous labor law cases. The Federal Circuit, unlike the other circuits, is a court of limited jurisdiction; it predominantly hears patent and trademark cases and civil cases brought against the federal government.

Active circuit judges generally hire three clerks for a one-year term. Chief judges may hire four clerks, and senior judges may hire one or two, depending on the size of the caseload they maintain. Some federal judges (at both the circuit and district level), however, have begun hiring career, or permanent, clerks to fill one slot in their chambers, which reduces their need for limited-term clerks.

Appellate clerks generally have no contact with attorneys or parties in cases before the court. Typical duties include reading the briefs and selected portions of the record; independently researching the legal issues raised on appeal; preparing bench memoranda summarizing and framing the case, explaining the facts and legal issues, and recommending a disposition or conclusion; suggesting questions to be asked at oral argument; discussing the case with the judge and/or co-clerks; and attending and evaluating oral arguments. After oral arguments, if the judge is assigned to write the opinion, the clerk will usually be asked to write a first draft, which the judge will revise and edit. In some chambers, however, the judge writes the first draft, and the clerk is asked to comment, edit, and provide additional research. If the judge is not writing the opinion, the clerk may be expected to read and analyze the circulating draft opinion, offer advice on whether the judge should join the opinion, offer suggestions for change, or write a draft of a concurring or dissenting opinion. The amount of advice a clerk is asked to render on these opinions varies with the judge.

United States District Courts

There are 89 district courts in the 50 states. District courts are also located in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, making a total of 94 district courts. Federal district judges generally hire two clerks. Chief judges may hire three clerks, and senior judges may hire one or two clerks depending on their caseload. While many district judges hire clerks for a one-year term, they increasingly are requiring a two-year commitment from their clerks. The hallmark of the district court clerkship is variety. District court clerks are in daily contact with attorneys and parties proceeding without counsel. They do many of the things appellate court clerks do (i.e., many trial level cases are decided by dispositive motions that are briefed and argued in much the same manner as are appellate cases). In addition, district court clerks are heavily involved in the discovery process. They often play the leading role in resolving discovery-related motions, and in recommending (and sometimes participating in) pretrial and settlement conferences. In those cases that do reach trial, the clerk will generally attend the trial and all related hearings. If there is a jury, the clerk may be involved in the preparation of jury voir dire and jury instructions. In civil bench trials, the clerk will often draft findings of fact and conclusions of law. The clerk also may be asked to participate in sidebar conferences on disputed evidentiary issues. In criminal cases, clerks are likely to be involved in the evaluation of sentencing recommendations under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

United States Court of International Trade

The U.S. Court of International Trade deals primarily with cases concerning customs duties, unfair import practices by trading partners, and the classification and valuation of imported merchandise. The court is located in New York City.

United States Bankruptcy Courts

Bankruptcy courts are trial courts, and have jurisdiction over some of the most complex and economically significant litigation in the United States. Bankruptcy clerks are exposed not only to bankruptcy law and procedure, but to other areas of law embodied in claims against the bankrupt's estate (called "adversary proceedings"). Because bankruptcy courts are trial courts, the tasks a bankruptcy clerk is called upon to perform are quite similar to those of district court clerks. Bankruptcy judges are not, however, Article III judges; they are judicial officers of the U.S. District Court, appointed for fourteen-year terms by the majority of judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals to exercise jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters.

SCOTUS Clerkships – The Ultimate in Clerkships

Supreme Court of the United States clerkships are the penultimate clerkship for anyone attending law school. According to the website Chambers Associate, clerking at the Supreme Court of the United States is the most prestigious gig any law school graduate can participate in. Only 36 SCOTUS clerkships are available each year, all of them reserved for only the topmost law students, out of over 1,000 applicants who consider themselves in this category, armed with letters of introduction from distinguished law professors and others to back them up. To toughen matters, most SCOTUS clerkships do not occur straight out of law school; many applicants, and the few successful recipients have previously clerked at the federal appellate level.

Clerkships offer a valuable mentor and a credential that’ll be with you for the remainder of your legal career.

According to the University of Texas Law School, these core aspects work in favor of a law school student who is awarded a clerkship:
  1. You will be a better lawyer after you clerk:
    1. A clerkship allows you to experience a variety of cases with different substantive law and procedural issues that ultimately improves your general knowledge of law and its application.
    2. A clerkship will help you decide which practice area is right for you.
  2. You will engage in intense research and writing that will help you be a more efficient and effective legal writer.
  3. You will gain experience that would take years to accumulate otherwise, and that is not in the least way offered in any law school.
  4. You will meet, observe and work with attorneys of varying skill levels, exposing yourself to their strategies and techniques with the judge and other clerks.
  5. Depending upon the impact of the judge’s personality, knowledge and work ethic, you will glean a work ethic of a truly professional purveyor of the law; again an invaluable experience not offered in the typical law school classroom.
  6. If you choose in your legal career to either become or lateral to an in-house lawyer:
    1. You will learn how your work product might be litigated by other lawyers.
    2. You will become more knowledgeable and thoughtful about how you draft your writing, playing close attention to the due diligence therein.
    3. You overall will become a better writer.
    4. You will understand when to use and the impact of choice of law, choice of forum and arbitration clauses.
    5. You will learn the importance of good solid legal research.
    6. You will become privy to the economics of litigation and discover.
  7. You will have a valuable mentor:
    1. To teach you the value of professionalism and preparation.
    2. Judges take their pedagogy of clerkships with extreme seriousness. This dedication is unheard of among law school professors or even from partners and senior associates in law firm atmospheres.
    3. Judges feel their relationship with their clerks as deeper than a boss-worker arrangement. To them a clerkship is a “bond” that is unique in all legal environments.
    4. You become a link in the chain of a clerkship family, providing a network with:
    5. Different law schools.
    6. Different geographic areas.
    7. Different types of practice.
  8. You will have a credential that will follow you for your professional life:
    1. Whether it is a switch in practice areas or leaving law altogether to pursue other avenues, having a clerkship demonstrates your versatility as a highly capable lawyer, improving your value regardless of the type of work you do.
    2. And if you should stay within the law profession, a clerkship will help you become more competitive for post-graduate fellowships, scholarships, internships and government honors programs.

In all, there is no substitute for a clerkship while you are in or after you have graduated from law school. Not only will it help you advance in your career as a lawyer, a clerkship can provide you with real-world circumstances of law, regardless of whether or not you continue to practice law, from which you can draw knowledge for many years to come.

See the following articles for more information:

published February 15, 2018

( 351 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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