My Clerkship in Paradise

by | March 31, 2009

One cold November day after I'd just been laid off from my job and set free by an old boyfriend, I typed the words "job lawyer tropical" into Google. On some web site or other, I found a listing for a clerkship on the island of Saipan at the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

I looked up Saipan on the Internet and discovered that it is an island near Guam and had been awarded the "Most Equable Climate" award in 1994 by the Guinness Book of World Records. Further research showed me that Saipan is located a mere three miles from where Fat Man and Little Boy were launched in 1945. I learned that Saipan is full of garment factories and strip clubs, coral reefs and Japanese tourists.

My circumstances being what they were -- in a word, heartbreaking -- a restful year on a tropical island sounded awfully nice. I sent off my resume with a cover letter that emphasized just how much I needed a break from the pressures of life in New York City. Not much later, I received a phone call from a Saipan associate justice. For almost an hour, I spoke with that justice about my legal writing ability (highly skilled, I bragged), my interest in assisting this emerging judiciary develop a body of jurisprudence (passionate, I lied), whether I could be happy living on a tiny island for a year (sure, I guessed) and if I'd be willing to stay for more than one year if necessary (probably not, I admitted).

The judge said he'd be in touch and that was the last I heard from him. Assuming that I'd said something unacceptable during the interview, as is my wont, I began applying for other odd jobs in earnest. I realized that people in my life -- especially my loving parents -- began speaking about the Saipan clerkship in the same way they talk about my other good ideas that haven't quite worked out: as one more example of why I am infectiously imaginative but cannot be taken very seriously as an adult and am therefore likely to end up homeless.

It was at the end of the first week in December that I received an e-mail offering me the clerkship. The e-mail was from the chief justice's present clerk, who, when pressed, admitted that the justice's first choice was found to be ineligible for the position because she was a convicted felon. The clerk assured me that I was a very desirable second choice.

The salary was fine with me -- $40,000/year, very nearly tax free, with a $600/month housing allowance -- and the court would pay my relocation and travel expenses. The hours, I was assured, were reasonable, the workmates affable, the climate desirable and the food not intolerable. I was informed that all of the Supreme Court clerks were alums of very good law schools and, after clerking, had plenty of career options to choose from, from staying on Saipan where the Attorney General's office absorbs all who want to be absorbed, to going back to the mainland where I could look forward to explaining over and over that I hadn't misspelled Spain on my resume. Would I come?

I must have said yes because at the beginning of February I found myself on a 30-hour flight, after which I arrived on Saipan, jet lagged but happy. After confirming that I hadn't unintentionally commissioned myself to be a hostess in a karaoke bar, I plunged into the abyss that was my year-long clerkship.

Now seven months into the job, life here is good -- though not always carefree. Generally, lawyers on Saipan are as unhappy as they are anywhere.

Overall, however, the work is astonishingly normal. It involves hours and hours in front of a computer in a windowless, overly air-conditioned office. I research and write for a boss I like and respect. I listen to NPR and check my e-mail with an obsessive vigor that would serve me better if applied to more productive tasks. I have good friends in my co-clerks, who also ended up in Saipan quite by accident. Overall, the law issues we clerks encounter are largely the same as clerks come across in the United States, such as contract disputes and divorces.

But there are also legal issues we confront here that you'd never expect to come across in any mainland courtroom. For example, consider Article XII of the CNMI Constitution, which limits land ownership on the islands to persons of Northern Marianas descent. (People of non-Northern Marianas descent can, at most, hold non-renewable 55-year leases for land.) This is a race-based provision that would strike most individuals as patently offensive. But the Northern Mariana Islands have a Commonwealth relationship with the United States, much like Puerto Rico's, under which only some provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply. In any case, this is the sort of interesting local jurisprudence a clerk deals with in Saipan.

Life on Saipan is a lot like living inside one of those ads you see on the subway with the turquoise ocean and rolling hills covered with lush jungle. (Though on Saipan the jungle is filled with World War II detritus, which is hardly ever featured in those ads.) Scuba diving after work is an easy, cheap, beautiful diversion. That is, except when it is typhoon season, when currents are so strong they might just pull you out to the Philippines. Amazingly, government-sponsored cockfights take place weekly in a big stadium right near my apartment.

Which is all by way of saying that clerking on sunny Saipan, the small island near Guam with the green lagoon and the world's most equable climate, gives a young lawyer access to things more interesting than simple courtroom shenanigans, though we get enough of those, too. The truth is that for all the odd details of clerking on Saipan, life here begins to blend into an umbrella cocktail of real life, surreal life, the most boring sitcom ever -- and a tropical vacation that goes on and on and on.

Clerkships at the courts in Saipan open up from time to time, so if you think you might want to combine career advancement with your very own Castaway experience, get in touch with the court administrators to see what positions might be available.
Supreme Court contact information: Supreme.court@saipan.com, (670) 236-9700
Superior Court contact information: (670) 236-9740
Also, the Attorney General's office is often looking for lawyers. Call (670) 236-2341 to learn about suitable employment opportunities.

Filed Under: Job Search


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