This is the first in a series of posts for Vault by Steven N. Feldman on judicial clerkships. Check back on Thursday, August 30th for Steven’s post on applying and interviewing for clerkships.
Clerkship season is here, and many students are wondering if a federal court clerkship is right for them. Yes, a clerkship can be a sterling credential to add to your resume, but before pursuing it, it’s important to understand what the job entails. As a law clerk, you will be the judge’s “right-hand.” You will spend your days researching legal issues, drafting opinions and bench memoranda, and talking with the judge about the cases before you. Your level of responsibility will far exceed what you would have as a first-year associate at a large firm. No doc review here.
The upside of all this cannot be overstated: you will learn more in one year of clerking than you would have in two (or more) years at most large firms. You will become a far better writer. You will learn how judges think. And if you’re lucky, you’ll gain a lifelong mentor in your judge.
However, such responsibility makes for a demanding and sometimes stressful job. No senior associate will be there to check your work before it reaches the judge’s desk. You must always be on your A-game.
Also, all clerkships are not created equal. A clerkship experience will vary dramatically based on the court that you clerk on. While there are certainly commonalities to trial court and appellate clerkships, there are important differences that you should consider. And while we’ll focus here on federal clerkships, the distinction between trial and appellate clerkships applies to state court clerkships as well.
Different Court, Different Clerkship
Federal appellate clerkships are generally considered the most prestigious, and are typically the toughest to get. As an appellate clerk, you will work on highly sophisticated legal issues that have far-reaching impact, given that an appellate court’s decisions are binding on all district courts within its circuit. An appellate clerk does two main things: writes bench memoranda on upcoming cases and writes opinions following oral arguments. Writing bench memoranda involves reading the briefs and record, doing extensive legal research, and then preparing a 20-30+ page memo summarizing the case, analyzing its legal issues, and recommending how the case be decided. If your goal is to be an academic or to practice appellate law, an appellate clerkship will prove invaluable.
On the other hand, if your goal is to be a litigator or prosecutor, a federal district court clerkship may be a better fit. This is because a district court clerk has amazing opportunities to spend time in court, observing trials and motions—both civil and criminal—that they have worked on. This chance to watch lawyers argue cases is invaluable for any budding litigator. Make no mistake: district court clerks also constantly write opinions and bench memos; however, they are typically far shorter and more concise than those written at the appellate level. A district court clerkship is usually more stressful because cases move much faster, and parties can file emergency petitions at any time. In addition, if you are the clerk on a case that heads to trial, you will likely split your time between court, assisting the judge, and chambers.
In the end, your interests and personality will likely dictate which type of court would be a better fit.
Are There Any Downsides to Clerking?
So, assuming you are lucky enough to land a clerkship offer, are there any downsides to clerking? Only two come to mind: first, in contrast to the interactive team approach you’ll find working on cases at law firms, clerkships require you to work in a relatively isolated environment for a year, researching and working up memos and opinions. Second, the relatively low pay you’ll receive in comparison to a lucrative large law firm salary may present problems for people who carry large student loan debt. However, many lenders have programs that will allow you to defer your loans for a period of time.
The bottom line is that if you are fortunate enough to receive a clerkship offer, you should absolutely go for it. It is a hugely valuable experience you won’t regret.
Steven Feldman served as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Before clerking, he worked as a litigation associate at a large New York law firm. Steve holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a BS from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org