Things I Learned from My Judge

JudgeWhen I started work as a law clerk, I assumed I’d learn about trial practice and explore some new areas of law. That turned out to be true.

What I didn’t realize was that I’d get some really great life advice along the way.

What I Learned From My Judge

In no particular order:

  • Don’t take on a mortgage. This is shorthand for “Get your finances in order so you can leave BigLaw on your schedule.” My co-clerk and I both took BigLaw jobs after our clerkship, and the Judge’s advice was simple: Make sure you can leave when you want to. His point was that there would probably come a time when the tradeoffs of a large firm weren’t worth it anymore. As long as you can leave at that point, you’re good. If you’re stuck working after you reach that point (to pay your fancy mortgage or whatever), that’s when people get really miserable. A corollary piece of advice: Make sure you’re getting more out of the experience that your employer is taking from you. Otherwise, it’s not a fair trade.
  • Working as a clerk will make you feel better about your own writing abilities. This one came up the first week, when one or the other of us commented about typos in a brief. The Judge pointed out that we’d been through the wringer of law school and the bar exam, and were probably feeling pretty beaten down. Actually, he argued, we were generally competent people, and we should recognize that fact.
  • Everyone’s doing the best they can, with the resources available to them. After being on the bench for 20 years, you’ve seen a lot of stuff. Some of it was infuriating to a newly minted lawyer, but the Judge took it in stride: Everybody’s doing the best they can, but not everyone’s equally blessed with resources, of time or of intellect. You can’t expect perfection from everyone all the time. They’re doing what they can.
  • Practice makes perfect. The first time I sat through jury instructions, it was thrilling. The jurors, despite themselves, were enthralled. This was meaningful, important work they were being asked to do. The stories, the jokes! The Judge was on fire. By the third time, I could make all the jokes along with him. Far from a spontaneous discourse, this was practiced theater. But, you know what? It always worked.
  • It’s okay to have outside interests. I’m not under any illusions about this — the primary “reason” I was interviewed for this job was my prior architecture degree. Sure, I was qualified, but that’s what made my application stand out. Having outside interests makes life richer and more interesting, and they might even end up getting incorporated into your day job.
  • Try to hire people who will get along. The lesson here is simple: don’t hire mean people, even if they’re really smart. When you’ve got a small number of people working together closely, it’s critical that they all get along.

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what comes to mind at the moment!

Did you work as a law clerk? What wisdom did your Judge impart?

Image by s_falkow via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


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