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Conversations on Clerkships and Corporate Careers

By Amy Nixon and Andrea C. Saavedra

Picture this. You’re a clerkships advisor, sitting down with the Editor-in-Chief of your Law Review to discuss how you can best serve her members in their search for judicial clerkships. She is a woman of color with an offer to begin her career at a top law firm. You learn she has never once considered applying for a clerkship. You inquire as to why. She tells you that she is going to be a corporate lawyer. She says she sees no value in clerking because she’s going to be a corporate transactional lawyer. You know that a clerkship would be additive to her career in the long-term. She tells you “everyone” at the firm advises her it’s irrelevant. How do you persuade her otherwise?

Simple. You tell her a story about a lawyer who is now at the top of their game in the corporate sector who clerked after law school, and explain to her why she should consider that lawyer’s experience before closing the door on her own. Let their journey persuade her to make this investment in her career. This series seeks to provide you with stories that might help persuade students who are reluctant to consider clerkships that they might be shortchanging themselves. Through it, we will interview diverse lawyers from various industries, sectors, and corporate practice areas who clerked and lived to tell the tale that it’s not only an experience for those who seek to litigate, but for anyone who aspires to lead. If you have an alum or attorney who you think we should interview, please let us know by emailing us.

“A clerkship is a great apprenticeship that will prepare you for the rest of your career.”

“A clerkship is a great apprenticeship that will prepare you for the rest of your career.”

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“Play the Long Game”: An Interview with Shawn Fagan, Chief Legal Officer, Citadel

Shawn Fagan is Chief Legal Officer of Citadel, responsible for Citadel’s global legal, compliance, transaction management, and regulatory affairs functions. Shawn is a member of Citadel’s Portfolio Committee. Prior to joining Citadel in 2005, Shawn was a Partner at Bartlit, Beck, Herman, Palenchar & Scott. Previously, he served as a clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Shawn serves on the Board of Directors for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Program on International Financial Systems (PIFS), is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation (ABF), and is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. He graduated with honors from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Political Science and holds a J.D., magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School where he was a recipient of both the Sears Prize and John E. Thayer Award.

Shawn Fagan didn’t aspire to be a law clerk, let alone a litigator, and certainly not the Chief Legal Officer of an investment firm. In fact, while at Harvard Law School, he “fully expected to be a transactional lawyer.” He even spent his law school summer doing transactional work at various law firms in the U.S. and abroad.

But, when the opportunity arose, he couldn’t pass it up. So he clerked immediately after law school, for not one, but two distinguished jurists, including the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, but still had the expectation that he would return to transactional work at the conclusion of his clerkships.

His clerkships, however, changed his career trajectory. The clerkships were “more career impacting than [they were] cool,” says Fagan. However, they were also “more fun, interesting and exciting” than he had anticipated. Through his clerkships, he obtained “invaluable insight [into] how the judicial process actually works”, which you “don’t ever get again in practice.” As a law clerk, you “learn how a judge prioritizes his or her work, the importance of brevity” in communications, and what judges prefer, which “like most of us [is] clear and concise” writing.

In Fagan’s opinion, writing is a skill that is invaluable no matter what you do and you’ll have the benefit of heavy writing and high quality revisions through a clerkship, something that you may not have as much of an opportunity to do in law school because you are exam focused. There is nothing better than being trained by an attorney that is at the top of their field, says Fagan. He notes that at firms, you do not always get exposure to the best, but, you do get this exposure with judges, coupled with an expectation of excellence in all professional endeavors.

He also views the skills he obtained through his clerkships as applicable to his role today, as he oversees transactional, litigation, and compliance matters at Citadel. While the skills he obtained through the clerkships, particularly his legal writing, may be most useful and immediately relevant for litigation, administrative law, regulatory inquiries, and other confrontational areas in the first instance, Fagan believes it is equally relevant to transactional and compliance matters because you always end up playing out any risk scenario to its final point, which is often how something would play out in court. “No matter what kind of law you practice,” he says, “what you worry about and think about [as a senior attorney] is: what happens if this contract or deal goes to court? What if this does not work out, how is this going to look?”  

“Clerking is not only an experience for those who seek to litigate, but for anyone who aspires to lead.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Fagan says “there is no currency like a prestigious federal clerkship” in one’s career over the long-term. “Twenty years or more [later], having a clerkship still resonates [with clients and peers]”, says Fagan, which, in turn, has a huge impact on your professional reputation. “People have a tough time distinguishing good and bad lawyers. A clerkship is a seal of quality that never goes away.” Fagan applies this “mark of quality” standard even when considering who to bring into Citadel on a lateral level. “There is a candidate I am considering right now for a position who clerked for two federal judges. This gives me great confidence [that the candidate] will be a very skilled lawyer.”

Fagan emphasizes, too, the opportunity he had to work with and befriend peers who went on to do incredible things in their careers. These relationships proved significant throughout his own career.

For all these reasons, Fagan strongly advises students to pursue a clerkship, even if they aspire to be in-house counsel like him. “Life is long, [your] career is long, [and there is] plenty of time for jobs,” but a very short window early in one’s career when it’s best to be a law clerk, says Fagan. “A clerkship is a great apprenticeship that will prepare you for the rest of your career,” says Fagan. “You should do it.”  

This article is the first in an occasional series in which the authors will interview diverse lawyers from various industries, sectors and corporate practice areas who clerked and lived to tell the tale.  

Amy Nixon, Esq.

Judicial Clerkship and Communications Coordinator, University of Chicago Law School

Andrea C. Saavedra, Esq.

Assistant Dean of Judicial Clerkships, Columbia Law School