Judicial Clerkships: Is Clerking Really All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Supreme Court hallwayIn general, clerking is a great job!

One NALP study found that a remarkable 97% of judicial clerks would still opt to clerk, if they could go back in time and make the choice again.

It is important to understand, however, that there are potential downsides, as with any situation where a small number of people work closely together!

The Benefits of Clerking

Clerking has a lot of upsides, and it’s likely you’ll have a good experience.

  • If you work for a “good judge,” you’re likely to have a great experience clerking. The ideal judge will serve as a mentor during your clerkship and for the rest of your career. It’s no exaggeration to say that once you’ve clerked for a judge, you’re part of the family. Chambers tend to be very intimate, and many judges keep in touch with former clerks for years, officiating at weddings and proudly displaying baby photos.
  • If you plan to be a litigator, you will learn a great deal that’s directly related to what you’ll be doing when you start practicing. In any clerkship, you’ll spend significant time simply observing, and you’ll begin to understand why some lawyers are very good, and others are less effective. You’ll also read numerous briefs, an experience sure to improve your own writing. In most clerkships, you’ll do a lot of writing, much of it under time pressure. This is good practice for the rest of your career. You will also be called upon to discuss your understanding of a case with an authority figure – your judge. Helping a judge fully understand the contours of a case, and figuring out for yourself what issues are most critical, is excellent preparation for eventually arguing cases yourself. You will also see how frequently lawyers misunderstand or gloss over important points, either in briefs or in oral arguments, and your confidence in your own abilities will increase.
  • Employers view clerkships, particularly at the federal level, as prestigious, and you may be able to parlay a year clerking into a better job opportunity. Throughout the year, job openings from law firms, public interest organizations, and academic fellowship programs will arrive in chambers, asking you to apply for interesting opportunities. You are also free, with your judge’s permission, to send résumés to firms you’re interested in, and many are eager to hire clerks. If the firm or organization you summered with no longer seems like such a good fit, applying for a clerkship as a 3L can open new doors, or at least give you time to consider your options. Likewise, if you’ve changed your mind about where you want to live, clerking is a great way to try out a different geographical location and make connections in a new place.
  • Finally, clerking is an important public service. At any court in which you clerk, you will help ensure that the wheels of justice turn smoothly, that litigants are treated fairly, and that their cases are carefully considered. In criminal trials, your input might mean the difference between someone being punished or walking free. In a civil trial, hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake. The responsibilities are weighty, but the experience is rewarding.
The Downsides of Clerking

There are, however, several potential downsides to clerking.

  • The first downside is financial. If you plan to work at a law firm after graduation, you will take a significant pay cut to clerk. You will make between one-third and one-quarter as much salary as your friends at a firm. However, there are ways to blunt the financial impact. First, most firms pay a significant clerkship bonus to incoming associates who have clerked in a federal court or the highest state court, and grant a year of class credit (so you come in as a second year associate instead of a first year associate, with a corresponding salary increase). Second, many firms allow clerks to work part of the summer after graduation as “pre-clerk summer associates.” This makes for a busy summer, as you have to work full time and study for the bar exam, but it is feasible, and even six weeks of work results in a substantial sum of money. Finally, most student loans may be deferred for six or nine months after graduation, so repayment won’t start until the middle of the clerkship year.
  • The second potential downside is that you might not like your judge, or the secretary, or someone else in chambers. This can be a major problem, because you all have to work very closely together, all the time. Certain judges have a reputation for being difficult or for requiring extreme hours, and this is information you should try to gather before your interview. If your school collects feedback from former clerks, this can be invaluable in helping you find a judge who will be a good fit. Your professors, particularly those serving as recommenders, can be valuable resources. Former clerks are another good source of information, especially those from your school, if they’re willing to give you honest feedback (most are). You can consult the judicial Yellow Book to find out who has clerked for a judge in the past. In the end, however, you have to trust your own instincts, and hope for the best. Horrible clerkship experiences are rare, but they do happen.
  • As for your co-clerks, you have no way of controlling who they will be. A good judge will make an effort to select people who are likely to get along, but compatibility can be difficult to predict in advance. Again, former clerks are the best source of information about whether clerks worked well together. You can also make some judgment about the type of person a judge is likely to hire during the interview, when you will meet the current group of clerks. Even though you won’t work with any of these people, it is fair to assess how you feel about them, simply as a means of predicting what sort of person you might end up working with.
  • The final issue concerns people who aren’t interested in working as litigators in the future. Even in this case, clerking has many benefits. However, the link in terms of knowledge gained is less direct, so the drawbacks may loom larger. Choosing a more specialized court, such as the United States Tax Court if you’re a budding tax lawyer, or the Delaware Court of Chancery if you have an interest in corporate law, could be a good option. Alternately, assuming litigation doesn’t bore you to tears, you could do a more traditional clerkship and enjoy the experience before diving into life as a corporate associate at a law firm.

Read On:

Learn more about applying for a judicial clerkship:

Return to Judicial Clerkships 101.

Wondering whether you should clerk? Get advice in the comments!

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