Clerks

You’ve heard the comments time and time again — a judicial clerkship is a great opportunity you should pursue if given the chance. Besides the prestige of the position, clerkships offer law school graduates a rare glimpse inside the chambers of the country’s brilliant and respected jurists.

While the writing and researching experience is invaluable, there are additional opportunities law clerks should look into before their clerkship ends. Now on to the tips….

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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?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “House Rules: In Defense of Clerkships in Flyover Land”

Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, is available on Amazon, as is his previous book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good.

You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare — or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument….

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Several prominent judges, like Richard Posner (left) and Alex Kozinski (right), hire 'off-plan.'

Over the weekend, we mentioned a very interesting New York Times article on the chaotic state of the clerkship application process, and said we’d have more to say about it later. Well, now is later, quite a bit later — so let’s discuss.

The piece — by Catherine Rampell, who has written about the legal world before — paints a depressing picture of a dysfunctional system. Rampell reports that the clerkship process “has become a frenzied free-for-all, with the arbiters of justice undermining each other at every turn to snatch up the best talent.”

Let’s look at the reasons behind this, and discuss whether the process can be fixed….

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At birth.

– Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, explaining when he begins recruiting law clerks.

(Chief Judge Kozinski is quoted in a very interesting New York Times article on the chaotic state of the clerkship application process, which we’ll have more to say about later.)

UPDATE (9/27/11): Here is our commentary on the NYT piece.

Judge Wayne Phillips: He likes clerk butt and he cannot lie?

When I learned about this lawsuit out of Montana (via Morning Docket), I thought it might be from The Onion or an old episode of Ally McBeal. Reports the Billings Gazette: “A lawsuit has been filed against Fergus County District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips by a female law clerk who alleges that the judge slapped her in the buttocks with a legal file.”

If the clerk’s allegation is true, was Judge Phillips’s action inappropriate? Certainly. Was it rude? Most definitely. But should it spawn a civil lawsuit, as well as possible criminal charges? Absolutely not.

And wait until you hear what the clerk is claiming in damages….

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Now that Labor Day is behind us, fall is fast approaching. You can tell by the chill in the evening air.

Or is that just the cold offers we’re feeling? Last month, we asked you for stories about firms giving out cold offers to summer associates. As we explained, a “cold offer” or “fake offer” is, in the words of NALP, an employment offer made “with the understanding that the offer will not be accepted.”

This “offer,” made with a wink and a nudge, allows the employing law firm to report (and boast about) a 100 percent offer rate, when in reality it isn’t welcoming back 100 percent of its summer associates. It also has an advantage for the recipient: when she goes through 3L recruiting, she can truthfully say, “Yes, I received an offer from the firm where I summered.”

We recently heard a story about a pretty cold offer (not from summer 2011, but from not too long ago summer 2010). This summer associate, who wasn’t the most popular person in her class, received a full-time employment offer “contingent upon obtaining a federal clerkship.” Given how hard it is to land a federal judicial clerkship, that’s a pretty cold offer — especially considering that the student in question, now graduated, didn’t go to a law school known for cranking out lots of clerks.

But wait, it gets better….

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Walking the hallways at One First Street.

Last month, the Supreme Court law clerks for October Term 2010 finished their clerkships, turning over their clerkly duties to the October Term 2011 class of clerks. As in past years, many of the OT 2010 clerks are joining private law firms — which welcome them with six-figure signing bonuses. These bonuses are paid on top of base salaries reflecting their seniority (many SCOTUS clerks join firms as second- to fourth-year associates), as well as the usual year-end bonuses.

For the past few years, at least since 2007, law firm signing bonuses for members of The Elect have hovered around $250,000. But this year, at least a few firms are offering even more.

So how much are we talking about?

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Many prominent people, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Judge Harry Edwards, have raised their voices about the increasing irrelevance of academic writing to practicing lawyers and judges. Yet, despite railing at the academy, those judges — and law firms, and sophisticated purchasers of legal services — all rely on the academics to identify talented lawyers. Law schools brand the beef, and purchasers buy based on the brand. What do I mean, and why is that process natural and appropriate?

Let’s start with an example for people coming right out of law school: How should judges pick law clerks? One way — perhaps even the “fair” way — would be for judges to assume that each of the 45,000 people graduating from law school is equally likely to make a fine clerk. Judges would solicit applications from all 45,000 and then start the process of sorting the good from the bad.

That cannot work, of course. Judges don’t have the resources (or, necessarily, the ability) to study transcripts, read writing samples, conduct interviews, and do the other spadework needed to assess all of those candidates comprehensively. And judges can’t externalize the cost of the screening process; there’s no person or institution that would play that role for an acceptable price.

What are judges to do? They rely on law schools to brand the beef.

Rant as they may about scholars producing unhelpful scholarship, most judges rely essentially unthinkingly on those same scholars to have separated the potentially gifted lawyers from the crowd. Judges assume that the best students went to the best law schools; that, after arriving, the more talented law students outperformed the less talented ones; and thus that the best performers at the best law schools will make the best clerks. Judges typically pick their clerks from among the top graduates of the elite schools. Judges may think that professors are insane when they’re selecting topics for their scholarship and then devoting months to researching and writing on those subjects, but those same judges rely on the same professors to brand the beef astutely. Whatever criteria law schools are using within the asylum to rank their students, the outside world seems quite happy with it.

Is that fair?

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Move over, chick lit. Make way for “clerk lit”!

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of novels focused on the clerkship, a professional rite of passage for many a prestige-obsessed young lawyer. In these books, plucky law-clerk protagonists have tried to do justice while also holding on to their jobs (and their sanity, and even their lives).

One of the first was The Tenth Justice (1998), a thriller by Brad Meltzer that went on to become a bestseller. More recent examples of “clerk lit” include The Law Clerk (2007), by Scott Douglas Gerber, and Chambermaid (2007), by Saira Rao. (Rao’s buzz-generating book, which generated controversy because it was seen as based heavily on her clerkship for the notoriously difficult Judge Dolores Sloviter (3d Cir.), was discussed extensively in Above the Law’s pages.)

Today we bring you news of a new novel featuring a law clerk protagonist: Tropical Depression, by Arin Greenwood. It tells the story of Nina Barker, a neurotic young lawyer toiling away at a large New York law firm, who decides — after losing her job and her boyfriend — to leave it all behind, by accepting a clerkship with the chief justice of a faraway tropical island.

Let’s learn more about Tropical Depression and its author, Arin Greenwood — who, like her protagonist, graduated from a top law school and worked at a leading law firm, before accepting a clerkship on a remote Pacific island….

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