Alternative Careers: Career Clerkships

Alternative Careers: Career ClerkshipsThis week we welcome guest writer Tina Arroyo to talk about her transition from law firm life to being a career clerk and why this career path works for her.

After years of legal practice, like almost every woman I know in the legal profession, I found myself searching for that ever so elusive work-life balance. And I found it in a place that you often do not hear about in law school – in a career clerkship.

My Path to Becoming a Career Law Clerk

While I was in law school, clerkships were only discussed in the context of highly coveted one-year positions, usually taken right after graduation. Most of these positions were with district or appellate judges in federal court. The goal was work hard and learn as much as you can in a year, see the inner workings of the courthouse, and then put it on your resume as a stepping stone to opening doors in the future.

This is exactly what I did after law school. I clerked for a district judge for a year, and followed with an appellate clerkship the year after. During my district judge clerkship, I was first introduced to career clerks. There were actually many in the courthouse I worked at, with almost every judge having a career clerk, and they were overwhelmingly women.

After my clerkships, I went into private practice for several years, first in a mid-size firm and then in BigLaw. I learned a lot in my years in litigation, but the balance between home and work life became difficult, particularly after having kids. I was plagued by the same concerns you hear about ad nauseum—working in a high stress environment constantly, the unpredictable schedule, and travel all took a toll on my life and family.

After having my second child, I decided that I needed a change and started looking into alternatives to BigLaw. I search initially in the usual place BigLaw refugees look, in house and government. It was at one of these interviews I had an “Aha!” moment. I sat in an interview across from three seasoned litigators, and I was asked what I liked the most about the practice of law. In hindsight, and possibly not my best answer given my audience, but I truthfully answered that I most enjoyed legal research, figuring out the law, and writing briefs. Then I asked each of them, and all three unequivocally told me their favorite thing was to win.

I ruminated on this after putting my kids to bed that evening. It really hit me that litigation was not the best fit for me. Sure, I liked to win too, but I found it far more satisfying to find the “right” answer, regardless of whether it was good for my client or not. But what job would allow me to do that? The answer became clear.

Why this Job is Perfect for Me, and Maybe for You

It has been three years since I returned to clerking as a career law clerk, and I can truly say I love what I do. Your job as a law clerk is to evaluate parties’ positions and figure out who is more “right.” And you get it do it while maintaining a great work-life balance.

The court schedule generally dictates your hours in the office. While I do work on the weekends and evenings on occasion, it is on my schedule. I never worry about those after-hours email messages that associates are all but too familiar with at law firms.

Substantively, if you are someone who enjoys legal research and writing, there can hardly be a more perfect job. I spent just about all my time researching and writing. The work is a mix of more routine, short orders, and longer substantive orders. Because we rarely have strict deadlines for when orders must go out, I can take the time to really sit with my writing and improve it.

A career clerkship also allows you to really get to know the judge and the court. Building such a close working relationship with a judge is really an invaluable experience for a younger lawyer. You are also able to see cases, which often take at least 2-3 years to work their way through the stages of litigation, from start to finish. The work environment in the courthouse with other law clerks is also very collegial. I often pick up the phone to ask fellow clerks questions and pick their brains on a tricky legal issue—without having to worry about billing any time to a client.

Interested? Here is How to Get Started!

Career clerk positions are sometimes available at the federal level, depending on the judge. Availability may depend on where you are located and what the custom is in that courthouse. The best way to find out about these positions is word of mouth and getting to know law clerks. Positions are often advertised internally to the court first, making them available first to other clerks and friends or colleagues of those clerks who are forwarded the job announcement. So be sure to use your network! Some openings do make their way to the Jobs postings on the court website. Get in the habit of checking that often.

If you are interested at the federal level, consider working for magistrate judges. These positions are not often well-advertised, if at all, to law students, but are great opportunities to work for a judge.

Other opportunities to work for a court in a permanent position is in a staff attorney role. Federal courts offer this in district courts in specialized roles dealing with pro se prisoner litigants or at the appellate level. And do not forget about state courts. For example, in California, there are rotating clerkship opportunities at the superior court and appellate courts where you serve a clerk for the court versus a specific judge. All these are great opportunities to find a permanent position working for a court.

And if you truly want a career clerkship, be open to first accepting a term clerkship for a year or two if possible. That will help get your foot in the door, allow you to build relationship with other clerks and judges, and hopefully put you on the radar when a career opportunity arises!


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About Tina Arroyo

Tina earned her J.D. from Stanford Law School, where she served as an editor on the Stanford Law Review. After law school, Tina clerked for judges in the Southern District of California and on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She also practiced patent litigation at the law firms of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP and Perkins Coie LLP. She is currently a career law clerk in the Southern District of California. Prior to law school, she earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked as an electrical engineer.

Tina has had experience tutoring and serving as a teaching assistant. She loves engaging and working with students one on one, and looks forward to meeting you.

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