Clerkships are an excellent way to begin your legal career. Taking a year or two to clerk before you work at a firm or for an agency can be a big benefit to you in the long run, both in experience and clerkship bonuses. Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks to consider before taking on a clerkship.
Benefits of Clerkships
It’s pretty common for law school to gear a young lawyer up for practice immediately following school; however, there are other paths available. Judicial clerkships are a great way for law students or recent law graduates to gain valuable legal experience and skills. Some of the benefits of judicial clerkships include:
- Exposure to the legal system: Clerkships can provide a front row seat to the legal system, allowing clerks to gain firsthand experience with court procedures, legal writing, and research. A lot can be learned from watching how hearings are conducted and understanding what judges expect.
- Networking opportunities: Clerks have the opportunity to meet and work with judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals. This will build a valuable professional network and can lead to future job opportunities once the clerkship is concluded.
- Enhanced legal skills: Many clerks come out from their time with the court as experts in legal research, writing, and analysis. The opportunity to work side-by-side with the judge, working on complex legal issues and drafting opinions and orders, is a valuable asset to a firm or agency.
- Career advancement: A legal clerkship can serve as a stepping stone to a career in law, particularly for those interested in pursuing a career in litigation or working in government. A lot of firms want their attorneys to have clerkship experience prior to joining the firm and will pay extra for said experience.
- Professional development: Clerks receive mentoring and guidance from experienced judges, who were once practicing attorneys, which can help you develop necessary professional skills. Judges often have more time to mentor young lawyers and become valuable resources once the clerk leaves the court for practice.
- Prestige: Legal clerkships are highly competitive and prestigious, so having clerkship experience on your resume makes you stand out to firms you apply to after the clerkship ends. As mentioned previously, the connections you make as a clerk can get your foot in the door for an interview down the road.
Drawbacks of Clerkships
While there are many benefits to legal clerkships, it may not be the right choice for everyone. Here are some potential downsides to consider:
- Limited scope of work: Clerks only get to work on cases and issues that come before the judge, which limits exposure to different areas of law. In addition, clerking means long hours in an office doing research and writing instead of gaining experience actually practicing law. While all new lawyers are limited in what they are allowed to do, clerking limits you further by narrowly defining your role in the legal universe.
- Stressful work environment: Legal clerkships can be high-pressure environments, with clerks often working on complex and high-profile cases that require attention to detail and careful analysis. Cases often involve nuances and novel arguments of first impression, which also adds to the pressure to get the answers right. Furthermore, judges didn’t get where they are because they were slackers, which means some judicial personalities can be difficult to work for.
- Limited compensation: Some clerkships pay well, but many are unpaid (more likely when you are still in law school) or offer relatively low salaries (compared to BigLaw). This can make it difficult for some individuals to afford to clerk when you consider cost of living and other expenses.
- Limited job prospects: Clerkships generally are a great way to jumpstart your legal career, but it can stunt or stall career growth. While your law school classmates have practiced for a year or two, you will start out as the newbie, often delaying your valuable class year advancements.
- Competitive application process: Judicial clerkships are highly competitive, with many qualified candidates applying for a limited number of positions. While BigLaw and boutique firms are also competitive, there are far fewer clerkships than first year associates. If you do not have strong academics and legal research and writing skills, a clerkship may be out of reach.
Types of Clerkships
If you decide that clerking is something you want to pursue, there are several options out there. Most lawyers want to aim for federal court clerkships. This can include district courts, appellate courts, and the ultimate goal—the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s important to do your research when thinking of which courts will be a good fit for you, both professionally and personally. It’s also important to be ready when you apply. First and foremost, you need to take an honest look at your grades. Being at or near the top of your class is important when vying for a federal clerkship spot. You also are going to want to make sure your resume is perfect, which means that you have gone over it and had others review it for any errors. Legal research and writing skills, knowledge of existing and trending issues in the law, and relevant experience should be highlighted on your resume. Don’t forget to plan and ask for letters of recommendation—waiting until the last minute to gather recommendations only leads to unnecessary stress. Planning early doesn’t just apply to letters of recommendation—most federal clerk positions are filled way in advance, so if this is the goal, plan to apply early! Finally, just because federal clerkships are more or less an online process, don’t think that networking isn’t important. Reach out to lawyers and professors who have connections with judges you are interested in working with. Sometimes the competitive edge comes in who you know, not just what you know.
If a federal clerkship isn’t for you, or you didn’t make the cut, don’t overlook state courts and specialized courts. There are many opportunities for experience on the state court level. This experience can be invaluable, especially if you plan to practice in the same jurisdiction that you clerked in. If you plan to specialize after clerking, specialized courts, such as bankruptcy courts, tax courts, or immigration courts, can prepare you for practice and the expectations of the specialized area.
After the Clerkship
Many BigLaw and boutique firms value the experience and skills gained by former clerks, whether the clerkship was at the federal or state level. Clerking provides an associate with valuable exposure to the inner workings of the legal system, not to mention the experience gained in legal research, writing, and analysis. Former clerks are very attractive candidates to law firms, because of the clerk’s deep understanding of legal issues and their attention to detail.
Another benefit clerkship experience brings you is the network of judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals developed during the clerkship. This can be an asset to firms seeking to build relationships and expand the firm’s client base. Former clerks are also often sought out by clients and other legal professionals because of their expertise and insight gained by clerking.
While there are benefits and drawbacks to clerkships, most lawyers find the experience not only rewarding, but a benefit to landing the legal job they want once the clerkship is complete.