When Opportunity Knocks: The Benefits of Judicial Clerkships 101 - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Kristi L. Bergemann

"Don't let slip an opportunity; it may never come again."
Chinese Proverb

When considering your first job after graduation from law school and passing the bar examination, one of the many options available is to undertake a judicial clerkship. Clerkships are available at both the federal and state levels in trial, appellate, and specialty courts. There are many benefits to clerking for a judge as the first step in your legal career. This article explores these benefits based on my experience as a state appellate law clerk and demonstrates some reasons why you should strongly consider clerking if the opportunity knocks.

Improved Research and Writing Skills
The main duty of law clerks is to assist judges in understanding the legal issues presented in the cases before them, and to that end, law clerks spend most of their time conducting research and writing documents. This experience is invaluable in that it will allow you to hone your research and writing skills in a practical setting involving many different legal issues and types of work product. Clerks may have the opportunity to draft a variety of documents including bench memoranda and orders. Over the course of a clerkship, you will have the opportunity to refine your writing skills based on feedback from those that read your work product and based on your experience discovering techniques that work best to meet your objectives and deadlines. Clerks may also be called upon to review documents that their judges and others in the court have written, thereby enhancing proofreading and editorial skills. Finally, clerks must learn to deal with deadline pressure for writing assignments, think and research quickly (sometimes in minutes or hours) in case their judge requires an answer to a legal question during a court session, and cope with the heavy responsibility of being relied upon by judges, parties, and the court system to provide excellent legal advice, all skills which will undoubtedly translate to law practice and serve you well.

Education in the Law
In most courts, clerks will be exposed to many different areas of the law and various legal issues. This variety in work is valuable for several reasons. First, it allows you to gain a general understanding of the areas of the law and legal issues most commonly encountered in practice. Second, it allows you to discover the areas of the law in which you are most (or least) interested so that you can make future career decisions accordingly. Third, it provides you with a stimulating, fluid working environment so that each day in the office has the potential to bring new and interesting experiences.

In addition to the overview of the law that clerkships provide, clerkships can also provide you with the opportunity to delve into some of the most important and recurrent legal issues. For example, during the duration of your clerkship, you may handle several cases involving motions to suppress. Because motions to suppress are very likely to be based on various legal grounds and arise under myriad factual circumstances, you will have the opportunity to add breadth and depth to your understanding of Fourth Amendment law.

Clerkships provide yet another excellent opportunity for obtaining knowledge in that they require you to be at the forefront of legal developments. Because your review of a case may be affected by decisions as they are published, it will be necessary for you to stay abreast of the opinions published by your court and your reviewing court(s). By doing so, not only will your work be current, you will also become aware of important developments in the law, be able to anticipate the controversial issues facing courts, and gain a general understanding of the process of jurisprudence. As such, you will become able to recognize arguments on appeal that are likely to be meritorious (or not) based on trends in the law, which will guide your work as a practicing attorney and streamline your litigation approach.

Experiencing the Courtroom Atmosphere
Clerks at both the trial and appellate levels typically have the opportunity to attend court sessions. This opportunity is useful for several reasons. First, it provides you with an understanding of the structure and procedure of a trial or oral argument, so that when you are called upon for these tasks in practice, you will possess a familiarity and comfort with the court. Second, it allows you to gain a full picture of a case on which you have worked for your judge, so that the research and writing process is augmented by the trial or oral argument that puts the case into action. Third, you will learn techniques for effective advocacy from the attorneys appearing before the court, and also gain an understanding of conduct that is distracting to the court.

Learning from Behind the Scenes
Clerkships also enable you to gain an understanding of the court system from a unique perspective. On a daily basis, you will observe and participate in the innerworkings of the court. This will enable you to obtain an understanding of the courts that those who have not clerked will be lacking. You will develop relationships with judges and an understanding of judicial thought process. You will develop relationships with your fellow clerks that allow for the lively interchange of ideas about the law and collaboration in confronting challenging legal issues. You will interact with the clerk's office and gain knowledge of how cases are filed, docketed, and moved through the court to a decision. You may be called upon to assist with file tracking in the court, an experience that is analogous to case management functions in practice. This knowledge and these relationships will prove helpful in practice as they will minimize the time you spend on the practical and procedural facets of cases, allowing you to devote the maximum amount of time to the substantive aspects of a case.

Appellate clerkships provide yet another unique vantage point. Just like "everything in boxing is backwards" according to Million Dollar Baby, serving as an appellate law clerk involves analyzing a case backwards. Appellate law clerks review trial court orders and are called on to determine whether the trial court's conclusions are tainted by error, whether factual, legal, or procedural. It is like reading a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book in reverse; you know the ending, but you have to decide if any of the choices made along the way to that ending render it an improper conclusion to the story. Where there is error, you will often discover that there was one choice made by an attorney or a judge (such as a missed objection or a ruling based on an improper standard) that threw the entire case off track. It is from this process that you learn about pitfalls of litigation that you will then be able to avoid (or help others avoid) in practice. Additionally, you will understand the importance of considering the big picture when litigating a case and possess the awareness to make wise decisions to control the course of litigation to reach an error-free conclusion.

Enhanced Networking and Involvement
Because clerkships provide a combination of knowledge, experience, and perspective that is largely unavailable in most other professional settings, they are respected entries on resumes. Many law firms recognize the value of clerkships and may prefer to hire former clerks before recent graduates, grant clerks in excess of first-year associate status for their service, or enhance a clerk's base salary. The right clerkships can also open the doors to academia and the judiciary.

Additionally, while clerking you will have the opportunity to come to know attorneys (and future attorneys in your fellow clerks) working in your area. Simply by virtue of reading documents and attending court sessions, you will gain knowledge regarding which attorneys and firms do work in your area(s) of legal interest and could be potential future employers. Also, depending on the clerkship, you may have the opportunity to interact and forge relationships with local attorneys while assisting your judge with matters such as scheduling hearings. This knowledge and these relationships may prove to be indispensable when planning to transition from clerkship to practice.

Furthermore, depending on the clerkship, you may have the time, support, and resources to be involved with professional committees. Taking advantage of these opportunities may result in several benefits. First, they provide one more opportunity for networking. Second, committees specialized in specific areas of law practice provide you with another knowledge base on your journey to become the most competent and skilled attorney possible. Third, you may take leadership roles or have publication opportunities while serving on these committees which will help you to enhance your skills, obtain knowledge, and advance your career.

Overall, undertaking a judicial clerkship is one small step that can make a great difference in your career. You will obtain and refine various lawyering skills, develop rewarding professional relationships, increase your knowledge of the law and the court system, become comfortable dealing with courts and judges, and benefit from a unique perspective on the courts. Judicial clerkships are an opportunity for professional growth that have the definite potential to lead to choice career opportunities that will set you on the path to achieving your goals in law practice. If you accept the opportunity to clerk, you will work hard but learn much, and never regret opening the door.

"Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises."


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About the Author

Kristi L. Bergemann is a Senior Staff Attorney serving as a law clerk for the Honorable Bobby W. Gunther at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, Florida. She is a Vice-Chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division Government, Military, and Public Sector Lawyers Committee. She is also active in the Florida Bar, serving on the Florida Bar Journal and News Editorial Board and the Appellate Practice Section Publications Committee, and the Palm Beach County Bar Association, serving on the Appellate Practice Committee.

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