10.6 – Clerkships and Other Early Career Opportunities


Clerkships and Early Career Opportunities


Non-permanent, short-term position where law graduates assist judges

I want to talk a little bit about one thing you might do immediately after law school, which is a clerkship. A clerkship is typically a short-term, maybe one- or two-year position for a judge where recent law graduates assist the judge with the judge's duties. Maybe draft opinions, maybe write memos to the judge, maybe help the judge run their courtroom, and so on.

Other Early Career Opportunities

Short fellowships, public interest fellowships

It's a really, really big category of these kinds of early career opportunities that can be very rewarding. There also are other kinds of early career opportunities that resemble clerkships, things like short fellowships that people do before they go into other areas of practice, public interest fellowships, where you go work for a public interest organization for a year or two. In this lesson, I'm going to talk about clerkships, but I think most of my advice is going to be applicable to those kinds of opportunities too. If you're thinking about those, when I'm talking about clerkships, just apply the same reasoning to those kinds of opportunities as well.

Basically, there's a range of things that you can apply for to do that are not permanent positions, but you might do for a year or two before you go on to something else. Why would you do that? Why would you take a clerkship or a fellowship earlier in your career when maybe you might be able to go work in private practice?

You're not going to make as much money in clerking as you typically would if you work in private practice. You might have to go live in a random location for a year or two. What's so great about that? Because it might not be obvious to someone who doesn't know a lot about the legal profession. There's a lot of reasons why it might be a good idea, even if it seems like a hassle in the short term.

Significance of Clerkships

(1) Valuable credentials, (2) securing future opportunities, (3) learning, (4) exposure

The reason is these kinds of early career opportunities are, in the legal profession, usually considered valuable credentials. They're signals that you are a particularly talented lawyer, that you were thought of as particularly smart, maybe as a good writer, and they actually provide knowledge that might be valued by other employers. Typically, if you do a clerkship, it's going to make it that much easier to get the next job, whether that's a law firm, whether that's government employment, and so forth.

Even if you already know what you want to do in the medium term, you know you want to go back to your firm, it still could be valuable to do a clerkship because the benefits are not just benefits that extend for the next year. It's not just about helping you get that next job. It might help you make partner ten years from now, because it's the kind of thing where it's going to be on your resume. It's going to be on your law firm webpage profile for the rest of your career, and people treat it as an indicator of quality. I firmly believe that even if you take a short-term financial hit from doing one of these opportunities, the benefits are going to continue for many, many years, and they're going to strongly outweigh the costs.

Now, some people just may not be in a financial position to take one of these opportunities. Some schools try to provide a little bit of assistance so that people can, but a lot of schools aren't able to do that. If you can make it work, I would strongly encourage you to consider them because they're very useful.

There's other reasons why it might be useful too. You're going to learn a lot. You're going to see how the legal profession works up close. You're going to learn how a judge makes decisions. Especially, if you want to be a litigator, how valuable is that going to be if you can say later, yes, I know how judges think about questions like this. You're going to really see the litigation process in action, particularly if you're clerking at a trial court, and you can see a bunch of lawyers argue. You might find that your judge is a really good mentor and someone that you learn a lot from. Maybe they teach you how to be a better writer. Maybe they give you advice about your career.

You also might get exposed to a lot of different areas of law. When I was clerking, I clerked for two years, I was exposed to a lot of legal areas that I had never learned about while I was in law school. I found that some of them were quite interesting. If you're someone who hasn't quite figured out exactly what you want to do, this can be rewarding as a way to give you more exposure before you settle in to something.

How to Get Clerkships

Application involves writing samples, letter of recommendation, grades

How do you get a clerkship, as well as other kinds of fellowships and other early career opportunities? The application process is going to really vary opportunity to opportunity, and it can be a little frustrating. For clerkships, the process could start as soon as your summer, right after your first year. It could continue well into your third year. Every judge is going to be on their own schedule. It's very hard to make them all follow the same schedule.

What do you need to apply? It's a pretty simple application for things like this. Usually, you need some kind of writing sample. Try to figure out something that's going to help you develop that. Emphasize that when talking about your jobs your first summer. You're going to need your resume, your transcript for these jobs. Grades matter, although I'll talk in a minute about exactly how much they matter, and then letters of recommendation, typically from law professors.

For that reason, you might want to try and get to know your 1L professors. Show up to office hours once in a while. Ask questions. Just don't be totally invisible. You don't have to be the number one student in the class to get a letter of recommendation, but it does really help to be someone that your professor remembers rather than just someone who showed up and never said a word.

As I said, these can be competitive positions, but there's a range of clerkships. The most competitive first round of clerkships is for federal appellate judges, but there's also federal district judges, federal magistrate judges, federal bankruptcy judges, a bunch of other federal Article 1 courts, some other federal Article 3 courts. There's a whole range of clerkships in the state judiciary. Depending on the clerkship and depending on the location, some are going to be more or less competitive.

At many schools, there are going to be clerkship opportunities, even for people that aren't at the very, very top of the class. The most selective clerkship opportunities are going to be reserved for someone at the very top of their class, but that's not going to be true of all clerkship opportunities. I think a huge range of clerkship opportunities can be valuable. Federal clerkships, I think, are going to be particularly valuable anywhere in the country. If you get a federal district clerkship in Idaho, I think that's a valuable credential even if you want to practice litigation in New York.

State clerkships can be quite valuable. I'd say state clerkships are going to be slightly more valuable if you get one in a state that you eventually want to practice, but even if not, I think it can still be a very useful experience. To get these clerkships, though, you're going to have to just send out a lot of applications. This is a process where you just have to be used to rejection and silence. I've heard about people sending out hundreds of applications, and then they get one interview and one job offer. That's a very happy success story. There's nothing wrong with that. It's an area where just being self-directed, being motivated, and not just waiting for opportunities to come to you is going to be valuable.

Concluding Remarks

More generally, I think that's a way that you should be trying to approach your legal career. Recognize that some of the best opportunities are not going to just be handed to you on a silver platter. You need to be out there looking for them, actively pursuing them, because the best opportunities are ones that don't have to actively look for people to fill them. People come to them. Try to find out what they are and be on top of these opportunities, and applying for them, because they're not going to necessarily come to you.

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