Law clerks aren't jumping for joy these days, especially when it comes to pay.

I spent last weekend in Portland, Oregon, where I attended the 25th judicial anniversary celebration and law clerk reunion of my former boss, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit. It was a warm and wonderful occasion, a chance to reconnect with old friends and to catch up with the O’Scannlains (Judge and Mrs. O’Scannlain were joined by all eight of their children for the festivities). Former clerks shared happy memories from their time in PDX clerking for DFO.

Most former law clerks I meet — mainly law clerks to federal judges, whether Article III or magistrate or bankruptcy — recall their clerkships fondly. They praise the excellent experience, the clerkly camaraderie, and the training and mentoring they received from their judges (for the most part; a few describe judicial clerkships from hell).

It struck me as strange, then, that “law clerk” recently came in at #7 on CNBC’s list of 10 Most Hated Jobs. I can’t help wondering whether courthouse administrative personnel with the title of “clerk” were somehow mixed in with federal judicial law clerks. The median salary of $39,780 a year suggests that this might be the case, since federal law clerks (and many state law clerks) make more than $40K these days.

Then again, people don’t clerk for the money. Sure, clerkship bonuses, especially Supreme Court clerkship bonuses, can be considerable — but in most cases, a graduate who goes straight into a law firm will do better financially than her classmate who clerks after graduation.

If you’re planning to clerk or interested in clerking for a federal judge, you should be aware of the latest news about law clerk compensation….

Here’s what one tipster told us:

Beginning next month, all federal law clerk promotions and salary increases have been eliminated, per the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference. This means that if you interviewed in September 2010 for a two-year federal clerkship in [city X] beginning in October of 2011, were hired, and accepted the offer based on the understanding that you’d get a routine bump from grade JS-11 ($63k) to JS-12 ($75k) after the first year, you were duped! And your Judge probably skipped out on the 2011 Judicial Hiring Plan (which is wrapping up next week) based on the fact that he hired a two-year term clerk for 2011 – 2013 and thus wouldn’t have to hire a replacement until September of 2012.

A spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts confirmed the news to us:

[T]he Judicial Conference, at its September 13 meeting, voted to suspend all step increases and promotions for all federal court employees — of course, that includes law clerks — effective fiscal year 2012, which begins October 10th [of 2011].

This is an unfortunate development (even if understandable, given the budget problems of the federal government). It’s hard enough to make ends meet on a clerkly salary, especially if you live in a major metropolitan area.

On the bright side, the impact of this pay freeze may be somewhat limited. Many federal judicial clerkships last for just one year, so many clerks wouldn’t have gotten the now-eliminated step increase and pay raise (or would get it for only a short time, near the tail end of their clerkships; this is what happened to me and my co-clerks — I think we got credit for some time spent studying for and taking the bar exam).

Well, let’s close on a happy note. Congratulations to everyone who successfully participated in the recent clerkship application process. Even if it might not pay very well, clerking is still a great job, no matter what CNBC might have to say about it.

Earlier: Clerkship Application Season: Open Thread

The 7th Most-Hated Job in America: Judicial Law Clerk [TaxProf Blog]
Law Clerk Ranks Among the Top 10 Most Hated Jobs [D.C. Circuit Review]
10 Most Hated Jobs: Law Clerk [CNBC]


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