Will a Clerkship Be Right for You?
When you get to law school, you might hear a lot of talk about applying to clerkships. Indeed, many upper-tier law schools graduate a significant portion of students into clerkships: recently, Yale 37.11%, Harvard 23.3%, University of Chicago 19%, and Virginia 19%. Clerkships are competitive and can open doors to prominent positions afterwards, so it makes sense that a law school might want you to clerk. But do you want you to clerk?
Clerkships are actually horses of a few different colors. Whether you want to pursue a clerkship, and which to pursue, is something you should consider just like any other aspect of your professional career – carefully. Here are a few factors to think about in deciding whether a clerkship might be right for you:
District Court vs. Appellate Court
Generally speaking, there are two levels at which one can clerk: the district court (trial court) level and the appellate level. The work is distinct and may cater to different interests. A district court fields cases at the ground level, and the pace is quick. Clerks will spend the most time reviewing initial pleadings, analyzing discovery, writing legal memorandum, drafting orders and decisions, and potentially interacting with parties to a case. District court clerks will likely have the opportunity to observe hearings, trials, sentencings, and other daily court proceedings.
In contrast, appellate-level clerkships operate more at the 10,000-foot level. In most systems, there is an intermediate-level appellate court and a highest-level appellate court (often called the “Supreme Court” of a given jurisdiction). In both, cases arrive as appeals from the lower courts. A clerk, therefore, is primarily tasked with reviewing the lower court record, any lower court decisions, and appellate briefs to determine whether errors were made in prior proceedings. Intermittent oral arguments replace trials, so an appellate clerk normally will not be in court on a daily basis. Much time will be spent on legal research and writing, and regular interactions will likely consist of discussions with other clerks and your particular judge.
Federal vs. State
Here, consider the difference between a federal court clerkship and a state court clerkship. Many elite law schools send more students to federal court positions than state court ones. For instance, in 2017, Virginia Law School sent 28 graduated students to clerk in federal courts and 4 to state or local courts. There are many factors contributing to such statistics. Federal clerkships are more widely advertised, specifically through a web-based system called OSCAR. They are also viewed by some as more competitive and prestigious. But state courts have great value too. If you plan to stay within a state, a state court position allows a clerk to develop specific knowledge of that state’s laws, preparing the clerk for more specialized practice thereafter. And, to circle back to the previous section, a state court appellate court clerkship will provide a vastly different experience than a federal district court clerkship, so consider the experience as much as the title.
One Year vs. Two Years
Most clerkships come in the form of one-year or two-year terms (putting aside so-called “career clerks,” who can stay for longer). A one-year term presents a steep learning curve and demands acquisition and mastery of skills very quickly. If one does not have a post-clerkship job finalized, a one-year clerk will have to begin applying for employment soon after starting the clerkship. A two-year term may allow a clerk more time to become accustomed to the court and develop relevant skills, but will also naturally delay a clerk from moving on to life’s next steps for a longer period of time. The difference between one year and two years can be a long time, so think about whether it matters to you.
This Judge vs. That Judge
The judge (or justice) for whom you work can make or break your experience. Judges have very different expectations for their clerks, and very different relationships with them. In some chambers, personal interaction with the judge is frequent, while in others far less so. Some judges discuss cases with their clerks in great detail, while others rely more on a clerk’s written submission and offer limited feedback or personal interaction. And, of course, each judge has his/her own personality, which may work well with yours or may not. A clerkship is a legal job, but it is also a personal one in which you work in a small office with only a few other people. To the extent possible, make sure those people are ones you would enjoy working with.
Finally, it might be that there is no reason at all for you to clerk. If none of the above “appeals” to you (pun intended) or you want to enter another legal field immediately, maybe you don’t need or want to clerk. If you choose to do so, there are certainly benefits to it. But the benefits and experiences can vary, so just be aware and think it through.
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