Clerkships, Federal Judges, In-House Counsel, Job Searches, Litigators

House Rules: In Defense of Clerkships in Flyover Land

Last week there appeared a column on this site that denigrated clerkships in the middle of the country. I could not decide if the author was attempting satire, but it seemed to be a straight piece. I would like to offer a counterpoint.

I began my career at Biglaw in New York City. The firm began to have troubles, and I saw the writing on the wall as my class dwindled from 40 to 30 to 20. I then heard from a family friend that a federal judge in Oklahoma City was looking for a clerk to assist with some topics with which I was familiar. I scored an interview, we hit it off, and I moved my wife and new baby to OKC for a year.

Full disclosure: I went to 15 schools before graduating high school, and OKC was the place I called “home.” Many decisions about this move were simple: it allowed us to live near family for a year, which was great support for the baby; my wife was working on her dissertation, so she had time to write; and I had a circle of friends from high school with whom I could reconnect.

Further simplifying the issue was that the government payscale is based solely on experience. How much did I earn, as a law firm associate turned law clerk?

Keep in mind that this was several years ago. At the time, for a first-year attorney, with no firm experience, one could make, say, $45,000 as a clerk. For me, with several years of experience (and they included my bar study as experience), I started around $70,000. All of those years are cumulative, so the years I spent clerking also add to my total. I have not examined the salary scale or rules in some time, but the point is clear: practice first, then do a clerkship. The pay cut is not as harsh, and after some years in firm hell, the relative break of a clerkship can be quite a relief.

UPDATE (4:55 PM): Commenters suggest that there have been some material changes to clerk compensation in the intervening years. We recommend that you talk to your law school’s clerkship adviser for the most up-to-date information.

Now, to the larger point of clerking in the middle of the country — or Guam — or Alaska. Clerking is clerking. The invaluable experience you receive working behind the scenes in the federal court system is second to none. There will always be elitists who will say (or imply) things like, “Oh, you clerked in the District of D.C. and not the D.C. Circuit? Harrumph, harrumph.” Look, the fact is that many of you have little or no chance at the S.D.N.Y., or the Second Circuit, and so on. That is not to say that you shouldn’t clerk. Pick a place in the country that you wouldn’t mind living for a year or two, and go for it. Judges these days are looking more and more for experienced attorneys as clerks, and as described above, the payscale isn’t bad — a little more than half of a haircut.

And about living in OKC, or Idaho, or Utah — it’s up to you to find the things that make you happy, and there are always enclaves of like-minded folks anywhere you go. Oklahoman Republicans are proud that their state had not a single county went against George Bush his second time around. He fared better there than in his so-called “home” state of Texas. But there are also tons of liberals, clubs, music venues, brew pubs, etc., to satisfy even a jaded New Yorker. Some of the best sushi in the country is found there. You get the point. Gross generalizations based on one person’s opinion of middle America should in no way dissuade you from seeking a federal clerkship anywhere you can get one.

During my tenure in Oklahoma, I dealt with a securities class action, a patent claims interpretation, and a product liability case that resulted in the first-ever verdict against the manufacturer. I had a blast working on these cases, and the first two went on to the Circuits and were upheld, with the patent case going to the Supreme Court. All from little podunk Oklahoma. Oh, and I worked for a brilliant judge with whom I remain friends to this day. If you are considering clerking, don’t allow geography to factor in to your decision. The judge-clerk relationship is a deeply confidential and trusting one. Depending on the judge, you may draft only bench memos, or you may handle settlement conferences. And personality can be everything. A friend thought she lucked into a S.D.N.Y. clerkship when a previous female clerk quit unexpectedly. It was only after the decision to take the job had been made that she discovered why the former clerk had left — and it was not a good situation — at all. My advice, based on experience, is to clerk for a judge that you’ll respect, not where you’ll find the most similarities to life on either coast.

To this day, clerking remains one of the highlights of my career. If you’re so inclined, it could be one of yours as well.

Earlier: The Clerkship Archipelago

After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at

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