Folks choose judicial clerkships for many reasons. Some choose to clerk for the legal experience. For some, clerkships serve as a “safe haven” apprenticeship before being exposed to the realness of potential malpractice claims. Still others choose clerkships because they are told to do so by their mentors or for prestige and bragging rights among their colleagues. Regardless of the reason you choose to clerk, how you leverage the lessons you learned post-clerkship is key to early success in private practice. This is especially important when partners at the firm that hired you expect you to know how the law works with little to no hand-holding despite having little to no experience in private practice. It can be difficult. It can be scary. It can be overwhelming. But it is manageable if you lean on the lessons you learned as a clerk.
The top three attributes that we suggest leveraging post-clerkship are (1) managing your judge/partner, (2) being pragmatic, and (3) staying infinitely organized.
1. Manage Your Judge/Partner
No matter what anyone tells you, the first priority of any clerk is to manage your judge. This does not mean handling your judge in a pejorative, political, or manipulative way. It means understanding your judge’s communication style, expectations, and view on how the law affects everyday people. All judges have their judicial philosophies forged from their life experiences beyond their legal pedigree.
The first few months of the clerkship are spent trying to discern who your judge is and anticipate how he or she would analyze an issue. It is predictive. Almost prognosticative. Once you have a better handle on it, your research and writing become more clear, concise, and targeted. At least in the judge’s mind. Most importantly, your reliability quotient with the judge increases. The judge learns that he or she can rely on you. The judge begins to expect you to provide good work product. The judge begins to see you as an extension of himself or herself.
In private practice, manage partners and your supervising attorneys in the same way. Increase your reliability quotient with them quickly and from the start. Learn their expectations. Learn their communication style. Figure out their legal philosophy. Discover their view on how the law affects your clients. Do not just rely on what you read about their legal pedigree from the firm’s website. That is shallow and does not foster the same type of relationship you probably forged with your judge during the clerkship. Do more. Dig deeper.
In the first few months, if you are able to get your supervising attorneys to see you as an extension of themselves, they are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when you make mistakes. They are more likely to be tied to, and invested in, your success at the firm. In the same way your judge became invested in you, it matters that your supervising attorneys feel invested in you.
2. Be Pragmatic
Clerking, especially at a trial court, helps to remediate a deficit in practice experience left by law school. It forces you to deal with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations—to be pragmatic in the law. There is no time for you to spend hours upon hours researching the finer points of legal theory. A trial will not wait a week for a clerk to help the judge resolve an issue. This skill requires targeted research and an understanding of the issue the judge is trying to decide. Do not drown in case law that has nothing to do with what is being asked. You want to tell your judge succinctly that this is the issue presented, this is the rule, this is how the facts apply to the rule, and thus you should do this. The research must be correct, fast, and driven by the facts of the case.
The same is true for private practice. At their core, clients want to know whether they will win or not (whatever “winning” means to the client). A client will not be happy if he or she has to pay the firm for hours of inaccurate research. The client may not tolerate waiting a week to receive a response. Similar to the pragmatism that a clerkship requires, practice mandates understanding a client’s targeted research needs. You have to stand in the client’s shoes to understand his or her objective. General recitation of the law is not helpful because the client wants to know how the law addresses his or her specific problem and what steps the firm will take to solve it.
3. Be Infinitely Organized
Create a project chart. A clerk has several tasks, especially when clerking in a court that has more than one judge. Being organized is extremely helpful to being a successful clerk. As a clerk, you write orders, have several different research projects, and prepare for motions, among other things. A project chart lists a project description, the judge assigning the project, and the deadline. Creating a chart is helpful not only in keeping you organized; it is also helpful when discussing your workload with a supervisor or judge. This way you can show the judge all the projects you have worked on, what you are working on now, and how much time you have to work on additional projects. It is a snapshot of what is occurring in real time.
In private practice, you will get assigned several cases that are constantly moving and could be in different phases of litigation. As smart as you are, your brain will not remember all the deadlines and things to do for each case. Make a chart or ask for a whiteboard on which you can list all the projects and deadlines for the cases you are working on and calendar all the deadlines. It should be open and prominent. Analog and not digital. Large, not small. This way, you can show a partner what you are working on, which will provide you with leverage when asked to take on another case or project. This type of organization provides evidence that goes above and beyond the common “I don’t have time” or “I’m swamped” responses, which may be viewed as laziness or apathy.
Whatever the motive for completing a clerkship, do not forget the value of it. As you enter the practicing world, reflect on the lessons learned from your clerkship, and use them to succeed.
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