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June 06, 2018

Tips for Effective Communication During Your Judicial Internship or Clerkship

Funmilayo Akinmulero – June 6, 2016

You have managed to get through that highly stressful first or second year of law school, and have prevailed through your application and interview process for those highly coveted judicial internships or clerkships. You are now about to embark on what will be an extremely rewarding summer, semester, or year. Whether you have been selected to work in a civil, criminal, state, or federal court, you will gain an unforgettable opportunity to work within, and actively observe, the American legal system.

During your internship or clerkship, there will be a great deal of communication that takes place between yourself and your judge. As an intern or clerk, you will engage in heavy discussions regarding your assignments, court administrative matters, and the cases currently before your judge. You will be part of a very complex organizational system that relies heavily on effective communication in order to operate smoothly. Michael Fielding, Effective Communication in Organisations: Preparing Messages That Communicate 31 (3d ed. 2006). One of your goals should be to help the system remain in smooth operation through effective communication. You will also want your communications to be meaningful. Effective communication during your internship or clerkship will mean knowing how best to converse and interact with the judge you will be working with. Doing so will ensure that you will maximize your experience, and it will also help you grow your professional network throughout your legal career.

All Judicial Internships and Clerkships Are Not Created Equal
The first thing you should do before you begin your judicial internship or clerkship is to research the type of court you will be working in and the type of judge you will be working for. Will you be in federal court or state court? Is it a civil court or criminal court? The answers to these questions will directly affect your speaking and writing style with your judge. It will also affect the level of formality that will be expected of you both in court and in chambers. Federal courts tend to maintain a more formal atmosphere in comparison to state court. The atmosphere will also vary depending on whether you are in a civil court or criminal court. For example, when I interned in dependency court, county counsel and the lawyers for the children worked in very close proximity with one another almost daily. So, where appropriate, the interactions between counsel and the judge were less formal. On the other hand, when I interned in criminal court, the atmosphere was more conservative and all traditional courtroom formalities were observed due to the more adversarial nature there.

It is, therefore, vital to know ahead of time the conventions you should abide by, depending on the type of court you are in. If you have not had the opportunity to do so already, I would strongly recommend going to sit in on a few cases in various types of courts in your local area—or, better yet, in the area that you have been placed for your internship or clerkship.

Know Your Audience
You will want to know your specific judge’s temperament in court and in chambers. Regardless of what you may or may not have heard about your judge, you should not feel intimidated. Your judge selected you because he or she was impressed by your professional and academic background. But it is still important to get to know your judge before your internship or clerkship begins so you can develop a plan to achieve effective communication with your judge. There are a number of ways to do this. Some programs may have an orientation where you will get an opportunity to meet your judge prior to your internship or clerkship, but others may not. If you can, try not to let the first official day of your judicial internship or clerkship be the time and place that you get to know your judge. Instead, find out from your law school’s career development office if there have been other students who have worked with your judge in the past and whom you can reach out to. You can also inquire within your professional networks. You may be pleasantly surprised to find how closely intertwined your legal community is.

Because we have the benefit of living in the digital age, the Internet is also a great resource for you to get to know your judge on a professional level. Most, if not all, judges are highly accomplished individuals both inside and outside the courtroom. Therefore, your judge’s previous work history, community service, bar association involvement, and legal opinions may all be available online. This type of information can give you valuable insight into your judge’s writing style, professional approach, and personal interests. You’ll also be able to find things that you and your judge may have in common. A memorable professional or personal conversation with your judge can go a long way in facilitating successful communication throughout your internship or clerkship.

Yes, You Will Have Homework
On the first several days of your judicial internship or clerkship (perhaps even in the first few weeks), there will be a barrage of information coming your way. Do not feel overwhelmed by this. Instead, be positive about all the new things you will have the privilege of learning. After all, you will have the reward of taking this wealth of new information with you throughout your career. If the information is complex or even completely foreign to you, be honest with your judge and let him or her know. More important, let your judge know that you are excited to absorb the new information and that you have an effective plan for attacking it. Where permissible, take work home with you for deeper research and understanding.

Make sure you ask meaningful questions where appropriate and actively apply what you are learning to your daily tasks. Not only will this will help you navigate the substance of your assignments, but it will give you greater confidence when engaging with your judge. If you put in this extra effort, it will show in the quality of your work, and your judge will even be happy to send you to work with other judges on occasion—which will allow you to diversify your knowledge, experience, network, and, yet again, your communication abilities.

Use Your Judge’s Time Wisely
During your internship, you will learn fairly quickly that our bustling judicial system tends to strictly adhere to a calendar or docket. Therefore, your judge’s time is very precious. Be sure to keep this in mind when interacting with your judge throughout your internship or clerkship. In between court proceedings, your judge will likely be analyzing the cases before him or her, meeting with counsel, or simply tending to court administrative matters. Thus, to get the best out of your time with your judge in chambers, first try to figure out your judge’s preferences on communicating about your assignments. Does your judge prefer direct email? Face-to-face discussions? What time of the day does your judge seem to have the most downtime? Earlier in the morning? Later in the afternoon? In any case, you should always be as concise as possible in your communications with your judge and get straight to the point. You should always know what you plan to say to your judge ahead of time and have notes and well-formulated questions ready. Time is always of the essence for your judge on any given day—both in court and in chambers. You will get the best out of your internship or clerkship if you exercise great time-management skills in this regard.

Listen With Your Mind, Not Just Your Ears
Active listening may be the most important skill you develop during your time with your judge. Experts in the communication field have long found that active listening is paramount to effective communication in virtually every work environment. Belle Beth Cooper, “5 Habits of Highly Effective Communicators,” Bus. Insider, Aug. 11, 2013. Be ready to listen and express genuine enthusiasm. After all, most of the things you will observe in court and learn from your judge cannot be learned in a classroom. Listen attententively and maintain good eye contact. Take notes if necessary, particularly where you have been invited to listen in on pretrial conferences, special court proceedings, and other meetings with counsel.

In communicating with your judge, you should also make references to specific points of significance from previous discussions. This will let your judge know that you have processed and value what he or she has said. If your judge is confident that you are fully engaged, he or she will be more likely to provide you with more complex information and tasks. Your judge may, in some instances, ask you for your opinion on an ongoing legal matter. Developing good active listening skills is critical to effective communication with your judge and will provide you with many opportunities for growth during your internship or clerkship.

Your Professionalism Speaks Louder Than Your Actual Words
The words that come out of your mouth will not be the only messages that you convey as an intern. Your professional brand will be on display from the moment you enter the courthouse, to the moment you leave each day. Regardless of the type of court you will be in, you should always be on time, be presentable, be respectful, speak clearly and forthrightly, and adhere to applicable ethical standards. U.S. Dep’t of Labor, Skills to Pay the Bills—Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 114; for ethical standards, see, for example, the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Am. Bar Ass’n 2012). These qualities will virtually guarantee that when you engage in actual oral and written communication, those on the receiving end of it will more likely trust in what you have to say. Chris Joseph, “10 Characteristics of Professionalism,” Houston Chron. (last visited Apr. 6, 2016). Keep in mind that those qualities shouldn’t be reserved just for the judge you are working with; they are for every person you come into contact with in court. As mentioned earlier, the legal profession is very interconnected, so you should consider yourself a walking résumé in court. Make sure your “résumé” is always communicating the right things.

Last, always be yourself, work diligently, be professional, and enjoy the time you spend during your internship or clerkship.

Keywords: litigation, Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, JIOP, communication, internship, clerkship

Funmilayo Akinmulero – June 6, 2016