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Getting a Law Firm Job After a Judicial Clerkship

published June 24, 2021

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I've helped many law clerks get positions in law firms during or post-clerkship, so I've gathered some tips and tricks that can help you in your legal career job search. This article will find the best advice on being more marketable as a law clerk and successfully transitioning from a clerkship to an attorney position.
 
 

Top Law Schools and Big Law Firm Experience Increase Marketability


If you want to be marketable as a law clerk, you should have credentials from big law firms before your clerkship. Law firms value if you have attended top schools (or done very well in less prestigious schools) and were employed in a big firm before your clerkship. It means that you have been 'vetted' by the admissions officers and recruiters with a lot of experience, and you can be an asset to the company.


Many young law students will take clerkships right out of school, but the most marketable law clerks usually have at least two to four years of experience before doing their clerkship. If you already have a good history with a major firm, it proves your employability. It also proves that you were good and competitive enough to get a job with a major employer as a law student. That makes you a lot more attractive to them.

Of course, if you worked as a law clerk on the U.S. Supreme Court, you are already marketable enough, and you do not need to think so hard about whether you have enough previous experience or attended a good enough law school. But if you have clerked or are planning to clerk on any Federal or State Court, you should think about how your credentials will look on an application to a big law firm.
 

Previous Experience with Law Firms Helps with Future Legal Placement


Clerkship is a great way to gain skills and experience, but it has some differences from traditional law firm experience. The pressure and work pace are much higher when trying to bring results to your clients while working under a demanding and obnoxious supervisor whose only goal is to profit the company. As a clerk, you probably do much research, thinking, and discussions with the judge you are appointed to. This judge often acts as your mentor and doesn't mind correcting your mistakes at the beginning. That is a world of difference from the fast-paced, high-demanding nature of an attorney at a big law firm where you need to do long hours and do not know what your tasks will be the following day. Therefore, your future legal employer might need some previous experience to know that you will handle the stress of working as an attorney.

Employers in law firms also often believe that the only way to prepare yourself for a position at their company is by a similar position in a big legal firm, so they might not take your clerkship as proof of experience. And having shown commitment to working in a law firm always looks attractive in the recruitment process.

Clerking can help you a lot also when working at a law firm, as it will improve your writing skills and teach you to produce obvious, concise, and well-thought-out documents that others, who do not have the clerkship experience, might not know how to create. However, you have to combine experience from both fields to really make big firms want to hire you.
 

A Summer Associate Position in a Big Law Firm Is Better Than No Experience With Law Firms at All


Any position with a big law firm means that you have met their recruitment and screening criteria. Even when it was only a summer associate position during your second and third year at law school, it shows that you were motivated during your student years and have the long-term commitment employers are looking for.

And if you don't have any summer associate positions in your resume, big law firms might think you weren't committed enough in your school years and probably aren't today. If your resume and cover letter do not scream that big law is what you want to do with your life, how do they know if you are the right person for their legal job? They are taking a big risk with a candidate like that, and sometimes companies cannot afford to take risks.

Many people go through life doing multiple things without any direction, but the way to succeed at anything is to commit to it. Switching firms and practice areas often might even seem suspicious to employers. If you're moving up in terms of the prestige of the companies, that's a different story, but the most important thing is to look committed. It would be best if you convinced employers how much you want to work for them.

If you couldn't get a job in a law firm during your school or early years, not all is lost. But there are many clerks like you without law firm experience competing for the job, so you need to find another way to stand out. You have to outshine everyone with your interview and convince your future employer that you fit their firm like a glove and are prepared to put everything into the position. However, you should also be prepared to commit to what you promise and really want the job because if you don't, you will be unhappy even if you get the attorney job.
 

The Differing Hiring Criteria of Judges You Clerk for Can Make You More or Less Marketable


The hiring criteria for judges differ greatly based on the type and level of the judge, which means that the level of training you get from them during your clerkship will vary. Being appointed to a federal judge tells employers a completely different story than a state judge.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who graduated from law school with average grades, suggesting that she was not extremely committed to practicing law. However, right out of the school, she got a clerkship on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is extremely difficult to get.

In general, appellate clerkships are the most prestigious because they are the most competitive. Law firms also value them the most, as they believe that attorneys get better training during these clerkships than, for instance, with a District Court judge. Appellate judges usually have more academic qualifications and experience. Judges at the district court level vary much more in their background and skills, so law firms have no chance of assessing the quality of the training clerks can obtain there.

Federal appellate and federal district judges have to scrutinize the nomination and confirmation process because they are appointed for life. On the other hand, federal tax, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges are attorneys who applied for the position and serve a limited term. State judges are often elected or appointed by a governor regardless of their qualifications.

Although the criteria for judge selection might seem unrelated to your future law career job search, a good law firm always looks at the quality of training you can get during your clerkship. But, of course, the background and qualifications of the judge you are appointed to can affect this quality greatly.

A judge can choose to hire anyone they want; there are no specific criteria on academics or experience. Therefore, when a law firm hires someone with only a clerkship on their resume after law school, they do not guarantee that the candidate will handle the world of big law firms. On the other hand, the recruitment process at a major law firm is much more strict, and employers can have more certainty about the candidates' commitment and skills.
 

Some Clerkships Are More Marketable Than Others


As already mentioned in the previous section, not all clerkships hold the same value in the eyes of employers. The most marketable ones are federal appellate clerkships, then federal district court clerkships, and magistrate clerkships after that.

Some specific judges are acclaimed and recognized nationally, so clerking for them looks much better on your resume or cover letter than being a clerk for some magistrate judge that employers do not know. These well-known judges are often well connected with appellate-level judges and Supreme Court justices. Their opinions are valued, so working with such a specific judge can do a lot for your legal career.

If you clerk in major markets, like New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Miami, you also help your resume, as these are considered much more prestigious than other markets. The number of attorneys and law school students in these markets is much higher than anywhere else. Thus, a state supreme court clerkship in the states of these big markets is considered quite prestigious, even though state courts are generally not that marketable as clerkships. The same goes for magistrate clerkship - if you can clerk at a magistrate court in New York or Chicago, law firms will consider it quite prestigious, maybe even as prestigious as clerkship at a court of the federal level, as this given market is competitive and only the best get the position.

You might also consider clerkships based on the type of practice area you want to go to post-clerkship. For example, if you want to be a bankruptcy lawyer, you might want to choose a bankruptcy clerkship; you might go for a tax clerkship if a tax lawyer. It is a good idea, and it might help you get more interviews later in your legal profession. However, if you are unsure about going into these practice areas and considering general commercial litigation, these clerkships are unnecessary.
 

How to Get Legal Positions Post-Clerkship?


It is important to understand that being a clerk can be an advantage for a law firm. Many firms pride themselves on the number of clerks they employ because clerkship can teach attorneys valuable skills, such as concise writing.

Clients of these companies also like to hear that they employ clerks that worked for the judge in the same area, as they often think that you might influence the judge in their way. They often feel that you have some intel when you work closely with a specific judge and sway their decisions.

That is why you can be the most marketable as a clerk in the area where you are clerking. Firms are also much more likely to be familiar with the background and qualifications of the judge in their area than of someone from a completely different state, so there is a higher chance that they will hire you. For example, if you have clerked in Detroit, Michigan, your best chance of finding a post-clerkship placement is in Detroit. Other big cities in Michigan are also a good bet after that, followed by smaller cities in the same state.

Employers want to hire committed people, so if you already live in the city and are applying for law firm jobs there, you are much more likely to stay. In addition, any connection with the city where the firm is located can help you with your application. That is why you are also marketable in the city where you have worked as a summer associate in a law firm or the city where you grew up.

So, if you grew up in Seattle and you're clerking in Detroit, the best places for you to apply would be definitely in Detroit and then Seattle. If you are suddenly trying to apply to a law firm in New York or San Francisco, it will look a little odd and out of place. They will wonder what your connections and reasons are, and they might worry about the longevity of your employment there. It is always better to stick to your geographic area, as you already know the market, have established connections, and all employers see value in that. It gives them peace that you will not want to change positions after just a few months.

Now, this does not mean that it cannot happen. I am a great example of that. Before my clerkship ended, I decided to change my next location from New York to Los Angeles despite not having any contacts or the California Bar exam. Still, I was able to land some interviews and even law firm jobs there, mostly in companies with many former clerks employed. Maybe I was a bit lucky because the market there was good at that time. But if you are really convinced about a market you want to go in, do not lose hope and do your best to get into it despite setbacks.

However, my advice is to have at least the bar exam in the state where you want to work. If you do not have the bar exam, the law firm can assume that you are there only temporarily and do not plan on staying.

As a clerk, you should understand that you don't have to only look at the law firms with openings. You would be limiting yourself, and it could maybe even cost you your dream career. Your job search should include any law firm that interests you, even if it doesn't have any opening currently. You should send your resume to as many firms as possible. And most law companies will be willing to consider you regardless of whether or not they have an open position. Apply and talk to many different places, and do not prejudge firms because you never know what opportunities could be awaiting you there.

So, don't focus only on the biggest names and look for law firm jobs at the smaller places. Sometimes, you may have a much better long-term career, partnership opportunities, and other advantages in a smaller firm. Many big law firms do not hire anyone during a recession and even fire a ton of people simultaneously, so they may not be the best bet in all circumstances. Many boutique litigation firms are built on employing different types of law clerks and pay just as well as some big names. That is a great place to choose as you would be working with other law clerks, so everyone is excited about writing and good legal practice. Your personality and skills would probably fit right in an office like that.

There is always hope to find a great fit after your clerkship experience. You have to do your legal research, apply to a lot of places, talk to as many companies as you possibly can. And if there is a firm that has work for you, they will bring you in for an interview even if you only have a clerkship under your belt because these law firms are businesses. But you should try to make your record irresistible for them because if you are not committed and are not going after your goal tenaciously, there will be countless other clerks with better law schools or clerkships from appellate courts or federal courts be more marketable and more successful.
 

Should I Do More Judicial Clerkships?


Many law clerks will start with magistrate judicial clerkship right out of law school and then clerk for federal or appellate judges, as appellate clerkship is more prestigious. Some law clerks really like the position, so they decide to become staff law clerks or career clerks because it fits their skills and personality. However, the longer you clerk and the more clerkships you do, the less marketable you are and the lower your chances are to get a law firm job post-clerkship.

You would think that with more clerkships, you are getting more training. However, that is true; the longer you stay outside the big law practice, the less committed to being a lawyer you look. You are also developing a different set of skills that will not help you in a law firm working on litigation or arguing for your clients. Spending several years in such a position might make it very hard for you to get employed post-clerkship.
 

When to Start Looking at a Post-Clerkship Position?


My advice is to start looking at your law firm position three to six months before your clerkship ends. Of course, some people start looking even sooner than that, but it is not a good idea to start any later than the three months before the end of your clerkship. You don't want to be left without a secure spot once your clerkship ends.
 

Should I Use the Career Services of a Recruiter to Find Jobs During Clerkships?


It is important to understand that recruiters will not represent you unless they know of firms with positions to market you to. However, they can help open your mind to options you might not have thought about, and they also might know of boutique firms or a private practice you had no idea existed. Thus, they can be a great way to widen your search. Again, however, it would be best to rely only on a recruiter to find you a position.

My advice is always to supplement the work your recruiter is doing with your own search. You are more likely to get a position if you use more methods of searching. You can be applying to places the recruiter is not telling you about. You can use your own contacts you have from law school or a summer associate job.
 

How Marketable Is a Clerkship?


Any federal clerkship post-graduation will most often make you more appealing to firms than if you didn't have this experience. However, there are some cases in which a clerkship offer will not make you more marketable.

For instance, if you have more than five or six years of experience, clerking will not make you more marketable.

If you have less than four years of experience, a clerkship at an appellate court will almost always help you. A federal district clerkship will not help you; however, if you don't have top credentials from the law school, it may help you.

A clerkship at the state court level will usually not help you market yourself to law firms.

A federal magistrate clerkship will usually not help you; however, if you do not have that much experience and want to work as a bankruptcy or tax lawyer, a federal bankruptcy or law clerkship will be a great addition to your resume.

If you have the opportunity to clerk for a well-known judge with a great reputation and connections, it will help you in the market regardless of your experience or skills.

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