August 09, 2017

Judicial Internships: Making the Most of a Great Opportunity

Karen McKenzie – June 6, 2016

After the Super Bowl a reporter might ask the most valuable player, “Now that you have won the Super Bowl, what are you going to do?” The athlete might reply, “I’m going on vacation!” And now that you have worked hard to secure your judicial internship, you may feel the same breath of fresh air. However, a judicial internship is an important opportunity that needs to be treated with respect, preparation, and hard work, not as a vacation or even an internship. It should be treated as your first legal job.

As a preliminary matter, not all judicial internships are the same. The style of the chambers, types of cases heard, staffing, resources, as well as access to judges will vary. Some interns interact only with the law clerk and staff, while others work more closely with their particular judge daily. Although workload and culture also vary by jurisdiction, some critical skills are common to all. To prepare for a judicial internship, one should not only brush up on one’s interpersonal skills (“soft skills”) but also continue to improve one’s most substantive legal skills (“hard skills.”) I address each in turn.

Soft Skills: Interpersonal Skills
I discuss soft skills first because if you don’t have them you won’t be a successful intern despite being the smartest person in your law school class. Chances are you likely have the necessary interpersonal skills, however, or you would not have passed the initial interview. Nonetheless, you will need to continue to work on these skills to continue to succeed. Soft skills are communication skills, adaptability, and conflict resolution.

Communication. Communication means that you express yourself well, whether writing a coherent memo or just being able to effectively explain to a team member what you need. The emphasis here is on “playing well with others” and the ability to get along with anyone. Interns have to remember that they are being inserted into a work team that has been together for some time—perhaps 10 to 20 years! Therefore, you must be able to get along with other interns, security, U.S. marshals, court reporters, judicial assistants, administrators, law clerks, and the judges of the court. You should respect everyone because they are all a part of this judicial family.

Adaptability. Another soft skill is adaptability. As an intern you will stretch your legal skills and observe the practice of law. You need to be flexible enough to attend hearings or trials even though it may cause you to have to work in the evenings to finish your bench memorandum. You will be exposed to areas of law in which you have no previous training. When this happens, ask for suggestions on resources. Always have a notepad ready to write everything down so you don’t have to ask twice. In this way, you demonstrate respect for the law clerk’s or judge’s time.

Seeing from another point of view. Getting along with others is obviously an interpersonal skill. You must be able to see things from another person’s perspective. This means that you recognize the vast amount of work your law clerk or judge has to do. If your clerk is busy drafting an opinion or if the judge is working on other important matters, it is better to work quietly on your research than to interrupt them with numerous questions. Save your questions and schedule an appropriate to time to discuss them. It is important to respect their space, time, and workload.

With these soft skills in mind, your internship will be a success.

Hard Skills

Legal research and writing. The bulk of judicial internships involves legal research and writing. However, writing in a judicial internship is unlike the writing for your law school courses. First of all, the fact patterns involve a real-world situation with real people. Thus, your research and analysis have significance beyond yourself and are important. Your chambers is relying on you to prepare a bench memo, review a motion, or write a full memorandum. Your chambers is also relying on you to complete your work timely and accurately.

Also, take the opportunity to review opinions. The judge and law clerks have been at this for a long time. Their legal writing skills are superb. They have mastered the skill of writing a brief summary of facts, translating complex theories into plain English, and cutting to the chase within a few paragraphs. The more you expose yourself to good legal writing, the more your own writing will improve.

Proofread. Proofread. Proofread. One of the most important measures of your success this summer will be your ability to submit assignments that have been thoroughly proofread and are error free. Attention to detail is one of the most important skills to develop for any intern or law clerk, so be sure to budget sufficient time to edit and cite-check your assignments.

Problem solving and critical observation. Related to effective research and writing, problem solving and critical observation are skills that are important when working in a high-pressure, complex work environment. These skills allow you to collect and review a lot of information, manipulate it, analyze it, and effectively communicate it in a succinct analysis. This will become highly important when preparing legal memoranda in chambers.

Meeting deadlines. Another critical skill is adherence to deadlines. Upon receipt of any assignment, you should ask the law clerk (1) who is the intended audience? (2) what format would you like? (do you have a template?); (3) what is the desired length? (how in depth do you wish the research to be? 5 or 15 pages?); and, most important, (4) what is the deadline? Be sure to let the law clerk know of any physical or logistical limitations you have.

It is also not a good idea to be last to arrive and first to leave each day unless instructed otherwise. It is better to demonstrate your timeliness and efficiency by completing your work in chambers. At the end of the day, make sure to ask if you can do anything to help to assist before leaving. It may be as simple as running an errand, copying some cases, preparing a binder, or cite-checking a case. Either way, you demonstrate that you are a dependable team player.

Reviewing your progress. At the midpoint of your internship, ask for a meeting with your supervisor to see what areas need improvement and whether your supervisor can provide some feedback on how to improve. This would be an excellent time to ask for more work, if you have completed your other tasks. If you are fortunate, your judge may provide feedback. Witnessing lawyers in action at trial, either at oral argument or through their briefs, allows you to see what makes a successful advocate. At the end of your internship, write up a one-page summary of the cases you have worked on and the types of tasks you have done as a reference for your chambers. Thus, if someone inquires about your work, they can recall your work. Also, ask in advance if anything can be used as a writing sample. Never use something without permission.

Following the code of conduct. Another critical responsibility is confidentiality. Interns who work for a federal judge must follow the same code of conduct as judges and law clerks. Some chambers have strict confidentiality, while others allow interns to discuss their cases with each other, but not to disclose the judge’s comments. And yet others may require you to delete all your Westlaw research folders and shred your work product at the end of your internship. In addition, what is said in chambers, stays in chambers. Your judge has invited you to be part of chambers and may make statements to you about parties, cases, and the law. These statements remain in chambers!

In conclusion, you are fortunate to have been offered a judicial internship. You can make the most of it by polishing your interpersonal as well as legal writing skills. If you do, you will receive life-long lessons about teamwork, trial advocacy, and the important work of the court.

Keywords: litigation, Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, JIOP, skills, code of conduct

Karen McKenzie – June 6, 2016