Clerkships, In-House Counsel

Moonlighting: Should You Do A Clerkship If You Don’t Want To Practice Litigation?

Hello readers! This post marks the one-year anniversary of my writing for Above The Law. **Hooray!** Whew, okay, now that all of that crazy excitement is over with, let’s move on.

Every once in a while, I meet people who ask whether there’s any value in doing a clerkship if they would eventually like to practice transactional law in-house. Like a dutiful little blogger, I consulted with several senior in-house attorneys on their thoughts about whether a clerkship is valuable for an in-house transactional practice.

The lawyers I consulted who hadn’t clerked generally saw little to no value in a clerkship with respect to an in-house transactional practice. Why spend an entire year of effort on something that’s not going to be directly applicable to your practice (and, by the way, pays diddlysquat), when you could be getting firsthand experience drafting contracts and working on deals on Day 1? Plus, it’s not like businesspeople have a clue what the difference is between a law clerk and, you know… a rock.

The attorneys who had clerked, on the other hand, saw many potential benefits….

One benefit that many of them pointed out is that many in-house lawyers eventually do manage litigation at some point. It may be because they work at a smaller company where lawyers have broader responsibilities, or because they become a general counsel or chief legal officer who oversees all of a business’s matters. Clerkships can help even transactional lawyers to understand how judges tend to view contractual provisions, negotiations, and litigation tactics — useful, particularly for advising business clients (or other silly tasks that some in-house counsel seem to feel are necessary). Clerkships at higher court levels can also be very helpful for understanding how law is made and developed in our judicial system.

Having clerked also adds prestige to your résumé, which can be a plus for many legal opportunities. If you’ve earned triple degrees from Oxford, you may be a bit less concerned about additional prestige. However, for the rest of us mere mortals, every little bit can help with a job search in this market.

Clerkships can also be eye-opening. Individuals who devote a year to the court may discover that they actually enjoy the adrenaline rush of arguing against and crushing others. (Ooh, maybe it would be fun to squash other lawyers too, instead of just other clerks.) Or that being a judge is way more awesome (or way less awesome) than they expected. Or that research and writing and extended textual analysis makes you want to engage in behavior you find far more enjoyable, like maybe studying for the California barzam.

Some other benefits? Clerking helps you to become a more well-rounded attorney, which improves overall judgment and perspective. Also, drafting opinions for painstakingly anal umm… thorough judges encourages precision and accuracy in thought and writing. And the time in the courtroom provides you with opportunities to think deeply about legal issues that arise, which you often have less time to do in the midst of a fast-paced transactional practice. Finally, there are tremendous networking opportunities that come along with a clerkship. Many of the contacts you make during that single year will refer business to you or be available for you to confer with on matters outside of your specialty.

Keep in mind that the type of clerkship, the particular judge, and the chemistry that you have with that judge is very important. Not every clerkship will be a good fit or a positive experience. “Just do it” doesn’t apply here.

ATL columnist David Mowry, who’s completed two federal clerkships, also recommends that you wait until a few years after law school to clerk, “so you don’t take such a hit paywise.” By waiting a few years, you’d be compensated with the higher salary that clerks coming in with experience are paid. Plus, you’ll have the added advantage of living more comfortably off some of the income you made prior to clerking.

Ultimately, whether a clerkship is right for you is a highly individual decision. Some of you may be starting a second career later in life and have a significant other or children to take into account. Or perhaps you’ve received an amazing job offer that won’t be around a year later. Or maybe you have an unnatural phobia of people who don long, dark robes and wield the fate of people’s futures in their pinky finger. Whatever your situation, even if you’re planning on a transactional career path, be sure to take into account the many benefits that a clerkship can offer.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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