I was fortunate enough to clerk twice. My judges, and hence my clerking experiences, could not have been more different. I am unable to give factual details, but I can certainly pass on some observations. I am also going to attempt to give you job seekers some tips.
More than any other type of correspondence to my Gmail are queries about jobs. How to get one where I work, how to go in-house, how to leave a firm, when to go back to a firm, how to obtain a clerkship, etc. I want to focus this week on clerkships because I believe they are overlooked by the vast majority of job seekers. I am not preaching here to 3Ls. Future grads have their own system set up by the career center in which blast applications are sent out, only to be thrown in the trash (sorry, I meant filed for safekeeping) by existing clerks. No, I am speaking to the experienced attorney who has found themselves in the midst of a hellish job search. Do not underestimate the clerkship….
Judges more and more are moving to a model of hiring experienced attorneys to be clerks. It is helpful to chambers, and to recordkeeping, when dockets continue to move. Yes, there are records kept on speed of decisionmaking, and on rare occasions, judges can be called on the carpet for not pulling their weight. In fact, I know of one judge who is infamous for taking forever to decide motions, but he is an anomaly. He is also a lifetime appointee. Unfortunately for the litigants who draw him in the wheel of doom, their issues may well become moot by the time he gets around to deciding summary judgment, but I digress.
If you have experience, especially in litigation, don’t hesitate to apply for a clerkship. Pick several locales where you could live for a year or two and apply. Protip: don’t bother with the Second Circuit or lower courts in that area if you are not from a top school. Do your research. If a particular judge has only hired from Yale or Harvard, you are not getting a golden ticket as a Brooklyn Law grad. However, there are judges to locate in the very selective circuits who understand that the best lawyers do not always come pedigreed and will hire outside the ivory Ivies. All of this information is out there. You will need to seek it. But, knowledge is power, and once you have several districts, or even circuits, that may have hired from your school, it is time to get cracking.
Don’t hesitate to contact a judge who is advertising for a clerk or two. You must have an elevator story ready, and understand that it will take a miracle to get through to the judge. But you can always speak to a secretary, or clerk, or someone, and give it your best shot. I know of judges who tell their secretaries to “pull out the Columbia applicants” from the three-foot long drawer of files. This is what you are up against. So, what harm is there in contacting chambers directly if you’re not one of the “Columbia applicants”? The energy you put in can correlate to the response you get. You should fully expect some snotty whippersnapper to give you the brush off, but there is no harm in trying. Certainly do not write a letter to the judge giving advice on an ongoing matter, or you may get a visit from the Secret Service. But, by all means, once you have targeted some judges, circuits, and districts, give it your all to get into those courthouses for an interview.
I cannot express the relief judges feel when they know they have hired someone who knows the difference between a motion to dismiss and summary judgment, and better yet, which standards apply. There are even career clerk positions, which can over time result in you making money in the low six figures. I often think back to young actors who would not deign to “do commercials.” Well, a single national commercial can carry your budget for several years. So, instead of looking down your nose at clerking, or even disregarding it as a gig for the young guns, give it some serious consideration. You can do far worse in this economy than clerk for a good judge.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.