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The Value of a Clerkship: Tips to Make the Most of the Judicial Clerk Experience

Kate Baxter-Kauf//May 7, 2013//

The Value of a Clerkship: Tips to Make the Most of the Judicial Clerk Experience

Kate Baxter-Kauf//May 7, 2013//

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Spring of 2L year, I remember feeling bombarded with information about obtaining a judicial clerkship after law school. I attended several meetings on why clerkships were a good idea, how to apply, and how to prepare for and stand out in interviews. I didn’t need much convincing, as it sounded worthwhile and my firm encouraged it, but I knew that others might and found the sessions informative regardless.

2L summer and 3L fall, I did a lot of applying, interviewing, and getting rejected, which I think is par for the course. I learned a lot from those failed interviews, though I can’t say it was the best time I’ve ever had. In the end, I clerked at the Minnesota Supreme Court for a one-year term. As has been the case for at least a few years (but not always), there were ten law clerks for seven justices – one for each justice, two for the chief justice, and one shared clerk for each side of the bench (I was one of the shared clerks). The clerks start in August and end in July and it’s a seamless transition from one clerk class to the next. And I can say without equivocation that I loved my clerkship experience, adore my fellow co-clerks, and am SO glad that my current firm encouraged me to pursue the option.

While law schools do a great job convincing students to pursue clerkships, there’s less information available about what to do while clerking to help advance career prospects as a newly-admitted lawyer, especially prospective litigators, so that’s what I have to add to the conversation. Some of the things I mention I did well, others I observed my co-clerks doing.

1) Use the year to learn as much as you possibly can about the court and judge(s) you work for, the decision-making process, and anything else you can think of. I’m an information hoarder by nature, but even if you’re not, clerking is a good time to practice. Talk to assistants, listen to orientation, pay attention during oral argument. Read the manual about court procedures and argument calendars and how your court makes decisions. This will be helpful not just in setting up a practice, but also because when you get to your next job, everyone you work with will ask you every question they have about the court you worked for. You may not remember every answer to every question, but knowing where to find the answer will serve you well.

2) Hone your legal writing and editing skills. It’s no secret that judicial clerks spend a lot of time cite checking and blue booking, writing bench memos and helping with opinion drafts. Not all of this is the most glamorous work, but I found it exceptionally helpful preparation for private practice. Not only because a lot of legal work is writing-intensive, but also because more work is collaborative than law school exams might suggest, it was really helpful to help with something knowing up front that it’s not your work product and your name isn’t at the top. There’s also no substitute for the repetitive practice of remembering all of the case names to be shortened in T6 of the blue book or getting in the habit of formatting the captions of briefs and opinions correctly.

3) Go to as many CLEs as you can. One of the perks of being a law clerk is that there are a ton of discounted CLEs available to you, and no billable hour requirements with which to trade off. Different courts will have different policies on how CLE attendance works with vacation/time off/court schedules, and obviously getting the clerkship work done will always come first, but take advantage of the options available to you. I did more than three-quarters of my CLE requirements, and it’s been glorious starting work and not having to worry about attending CLEs for the sake of attending them and only going to those I find practically or professionally necessary.

4) Watch as much oral argument as you can. Not all courts will have an active oral argument calendar, but if it’s available, you should go. The Minnesota Supreme Court sees a variety of different types of cases–criminal, civil, lawyer discipline, election–and it was incredibly informative (and interesting) to see the sheer variety of styles and quality of argument before the court. It’s also useful to get a sense of how the judges in your court interact with the litigants, and what types of questions to prepare for. The same goes for the briefs that come in. I was shocked at the quality variance between briefs submitted, and it really helped both with writing skills and also to start getting a sense of the excellent legal community in Minnesota.

5) Pursue informational interviews. When I started, about half of my clerk class had settled employment plans for after the clerkship was over. Everyone had different strategies for how to go about getting their next job after clerking, and a number of different career paths on the table, but one of my fellow co-clerks conducted the most effective campaign I’ve ever seen. She had moved to the area after graduation with plans to stay (but had not attended law school in the area), and had a few different avenues she was considering pursuing. So she started early, and met tons of people to hear about their jobs, what they liked, and didn’t, and did so in all of the different areas of law she was considering. She used all of her available networks–past jobs, undergraduate, law school, etc.–and met some really fantastic people.  By the time she actually started going on interviews, she had a much better idea of what she wanted and what types of questions to ask interviewers to figure out if the job was a good fit.

6) Enjoy the camaraderie of your fellow clerks. This advice will vary more based on where you’re clerking, because I know that different clerks have different office setups and lots of clerks work alone much of the time. But get to know your fellow co-clerks, because it is fantastic having a group of people who are at a similar career stage as yourself. The Minnesota Supreme Court clerks have a standing tradition of going out to lunch on Fridays together, and not only did we visit nearly every restaurant in Saint Paul worth going to over the course of the year, we got to know each other and share tips and help with career next steps and plan weddings. Even if I didn’t love the judges I worked with, and the work I got to do, the co-clerks I worked with would make the experience a fond one to remember. We still meet for happy hour about once a month, and it is always a highlight.

My tips are informed by my specific clerkship, and I’d love to hear from those who clerked elsewhere. What did you do to prepare for practice after clerking, and what did you wish you’d done better?

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