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After the Bar

Practice Areas & Settings

Clerkships: A Foundation for Successful Private Practice

Stephanie P McDonald

Clerkships: A Foundation for Successful Private Practice
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Serving as a judicial clerk can provide unique opportunities for recent law school graduates and attorneys who are interested in service within their state’s judicial branch of government. Whether you serve at the trial or appellate level, a judicial clerkship offers access to the courtroom and the chance to observe skilled advocates as they work through the post-filing stages of litigation.

Trial-Level Law Clerks

In South Carolina, and likely in other jurisdictions, civil litigation opportunities for young lawyers to work in the courtroom have become more limited due to the success of alternative dispute resolution and the expenses associated with bringing cases to trial. Trial-level law clerks have front-row seats to observe skilled advocates in action through the various stages of a case—starting with motions practice and moving through the phases of complex trials. Exposure to attorneys at the top of the legal profession provides much-needed insight into effectively trying cases. As important are the opportunities to see what does not work—whether the situation involves a jury or interaction with a judge and court staff.

Appellate-Level Clerkships

Appellate-level clerkships may not provide quite as many courtroom experiences as the trial level, but they are likewise rewarding. In addition to the skills you can hone by observing oral argument, working with your judge to review transcripts and draft opinions will provide critical practical knowledge of evidentiary, procedural, and error preservation concepts far beyond what you can learn in law school. This knowledge, particularly if combined with a penchant for writing, can make you uniquely marketable to law firms. Established attorneys often contact our court to inquire about clerks and court staff attorneys who might be interested in moving to private practice.

Relationships and Networking

The relationships and networking opportunities a clerkship can provide are often every bit as rewarding as the practical experience you can garner. You will likely be invited to attend events and participate in continuing legal education opportunities about which you might not otherwise know. For example, our Chief Judge, James E. Lockemy, recently conducted a seminar for our court staff, clerks, and other young lawyers on “Leadership and the Profession.” Chief Judge Lockemy is chair of the ABA Appellate Judges Conference and a retired colonel in the South Carolina National Guard. His insights, as well as those of the other speakers participating in the program, are invaluable to program participants.

Friendships and Collegial Bonds

Serving as a judicial clerk can also establish friendships and collegial bonds that you will treasure throughout your career. In addition to working with the other clerks at the courthouse during your time with the court, you may have the chance to meet your judge’s prior law clerks who have gone on to establish themselves in the legal community. These attorneys know just what it takes to work with your judge, and they can be useful contacts as you work to establish your client base and reputation in your state.

Make the most of your time with the court—the knowledge, experiences, relationships, and skills gained will serve you well throughout your career. And after working in a courthouse, you just may catch the public service bug.