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The Road Less Traveled: Clerking as a Mid-Level Associate

Dani Morrison


  • A judicial clerkship after first practicing as an attorney is a path not only worthy of consideration but worthy of becoming a “traditional” pursuit.
  • Read one lawyer's personal journey from holding down two jobs at the age of 16 to becoming an associate to becoming a judicial clerk.
The Road Less Traveled: Clerking as a Mid-Level Associate
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I can still feel the phantom burden on my shoulders of the post-graduation choices I had to make when I was a 3L. Do I go back to the firm where I summered? Do I seek out an opportunity in public interest and advocate on behalf of the underrepresented while benefiting from the student loan forgiveness program? Do I look for a judicial clerkship and continue to "hone" my legal and writing skills in an environment where I will be exposed to a myriad of issues? I felt both immobilized by indecision and the need to execute the steps necessary to pursue each option during any given moment, on any given day, throughout the fall and spring semesters of my 3L year.

I entered law school as a nontraditional student. Since the age of 16, I had worked two jobs—at times, out of financial necessity and, at others, out of a pursuit of fulfillment. Over a period of 10 years, I completed my undergraduate degree in English and spent another three years obtaining my juris doctorate and master's degree in education with a certificate in disability studies from Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL).

Although the manner in which I expected I would apply my law and master's degrees changed throughout my law school career, the overarching goal of making the most of those three years never wavered. I formed meaningful relationships with my classmates, faculty, and administration. I competed in every oral advocacy competition that I was able to compete in, served as class president all three years, and invested in the community through service projects and pro bono work. I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity in a way I was not able to while pursuing my bachelor's degree, while also giving myself options after law school. As I entered my 3L year, I believed I had succeeded at both, but as I had heard with a significant degree of reliability, the legal field was one that was both saturated and highly competitive. I still doubted whether the "options" that I thought I had were ones that were actually within my control to choose among. Moreover, I was keenly aware of the need to determine my next steps.

Between finishing my classes, preparing for graduation and the bar exam, and managing my other extracurricular responsibilities, there were only so many hours left in the day to pursue what I considered to be my post-graduation "options." So I had to decide which path to pursue. Returning to the firm where I summered was the simplest solution, but I was not sure if it was the best fit for me.

The decision was daunting, in part, because I thought I was making a choice that would dictate the next 10 years of my life—or at least the next 1 to 2 years of my life—only to then require a decision about the next 10 years of my life. If I went the public interest route, I would need to stay in that field for at least 10 years to take advantage of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. If I went into private practice, I felt I needed to be at a firm where I would want to stay for at least 10 years—the time it generally takes to make partner—and some place where I would want to work with others as a partner. If I clerked—well, I would have a year or two of reprieve, only delaying the inevitable decision of eventually still needing to choose between private or public practice. Unbeknownst to me, I had unnecessarily limited my options.

What I could not fully understand then, and frankly what I am still learning today, is that there is not a single path to success in the law. The law, like life, is about building relationships, investing in people, and being "present" enough in your current circumstance to learn and grow from the people and situations you encounter. That presence necessarily informs, colors, and changes previously defined goals and the pursuit of those goals. You do not know what you do not know, and what is originally viewed as an end point may turn out to be just a pit stop along the way to another end point.

SUCOL runs an intercollegiate appellate competition, known as Mackenzie Hughes, each year. It was the only intercollegiate oral advocacy competition I was unable to participate in as an oralist during law school. Instead, I assisted with the administration of the competition as a member of the Moot Court Honor Society Board. Each year, several distinguished judges from state and federal bars judged the competition, including a SUCOL alum, the Honorable Theodore A. McKee, former chief judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. After the competition, the board members and finalists had dinner with the judges and attorneys from the firm of Mackenzie Hughes, L.L.P.

At that dinner, Judge McKee and I got to know one another. Afterward, he checked in with me from time to time, asking about my job search and whether I had any interest in a judicial clerkship. He gave me suggestions for firms to consider and put me in touch with individuals who had clerked with him over the years so that I could learn about their current positions, the paths they took to get there, and where they saw themselves in 5 to 10 years.

I later learned that while I was tailoring my cover letters to various firms and speaking with Judge McKee's former clerks, Judge McKee was speaking with my teachers and school administration about my performance in class, the oral advocacy competitions I had won, and my school and community involvement. Apparently liking what he heard, Judge McKee offered me a clerkship with him for 2019–2020. Yes, that is correct: 2019–2020, which was four years away at that point. I recall Judge McKee telling me, "I know it's several years away still and it doesn't help you with a job after graduation, plus I may be dead by then, but if you want it, I'd be happy to have you." I immediately accepted. Here was an opportunity to apply and shape the law in one of the second-highest courts in the nation, with someone who had generously and selflessly taken a personal interest in my success. It also did not hurt that he has a decent sense of humor.

But, to Judge McKee's point, I still needed to find a job after graduation. A four-year gap in my legal résumé between graduation and my clerkship would not be good for my career and would likely decrease the value I wanted to bring to my clerkship. I was also fairly certain there was not a four-year forbearance option for student loans. By that point, however, I at least knew I wanted to work in a more metropolitan area that was closer to family, so I limited my job search to New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. I believe in a targeted approach to a job search, so I focused my efforts on a small education law boutique firm, two general litigation boutique firms, two mid-size law firms with multiple practice areas, and a "Big Law" firm. I was invited to interview with each firm and received universal interest in my upcoming clerkship as well as a willingness to hold my position during my clerkship year. While I worked hard to build a solid résumé during law school, I know without a doubt that my clerkship added a certain je ne sais quoi to my résumé.

Now having practiced for two years, had I the ability to go back to my 2L or 3L year, I would actively seek out judicial clerkships that I could fulfill as a mid-level associate. I have a friend who is currently clerking for Judge McKee after having worked for one year in a mid-size law firm. She has told me that the year of practice she had before going into her clerkship has proved invaluable. I can only imagine how much more that will be the case after having practiced for four years. In the past two years, the amount that I have learned about the actual practice of law cannot be overstated. I have participated in a federal civil rights pro bono trial, a trial involving the federal racketeering statute, and a preliminary injunction hearing in a state court of common pleas, and I have drafted a brief to the Third Circuit. The experience base with which I will enter my clerkship is far greater than it would have been as a recent law school graduate. My summer associateships provided valuable insight into the practical side of lawyering, but it is different than the day-to-day grind of discovery, motion practice, global case strategy, and trial preparation. As a mid-level associate going into a judicial clerkship in my fourth year of practice, I will be able to better appreciate the issues I encounter and the manner in which they are presented by attorneys. I will also gain insight into the judicial process and the manner in which an experienced judge approaches those issues at a time in my career when I not only will have expanded my practical understanding of the law but will also have seven years of legal knowledge under my belt.

My path to a judicial clerkship was by no means traditional, but now that I am on it, I would have it no other way. I believe that practicing law is an art, and the people you meet along the way, the cases you try, and the clerkships you may take, all add depth, texture, and color to that practice. For me, a clerkship particularly informs that artistry, as it is the best insight one could gain into the judiciary without being a judge. I also believe a judicial clerkship after first practicing as an attorney is a path not only worthy of consideration but worthy of becoming a "traditional" pursuit.