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Often-Overlooked Legal Job Opportunities in the Federal Courts

Tommy Tobin

Often-Overlooked Legal Job Opportunities in the Federal Courts
Paul Bradbury via GettyImages

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Judicial clerkships can provide enriching and engaging experiences for lawyers and the judges who hire them. At the federal level, applicants’ attention often focuses on the experience of clerking for an Article III judge, such as a federal district judge. Article III judges rely on law clerks to research and draft documents, orders, and opinions that come from chambers.

Numerous opportunities also exist for applicants looking for employment with the federal courts outside an Article III judge’s chambers. All too often, such opportunities go overlooked. There are four categories of federal opportunities beyond Article III judges’ chambers: magistrate judge clerkships, bankruptcy judge clerkships, other federal clerkships, and staff attorney positions.

Magistrate Judge Clerkships

Magistrate judges play an increasing role in both pretrial and trial matters. More than 500 full-time federal magistrate judges dispose of more than a million matters every year. Full-time magistrate judges serve a renewable eight-year term.

The district judges in a particular district appoint the magistrate judges in that district. Depending on the district court, the responsibilities of a magistrate may vary. On the civil docket, magistrate judges might conduct settlement conferences, draft memoranda and recommendations on dispositive motions, and hold evidentiary hearings. For example, a magistrate judge could provide a memorandum and recommendation as to whether a Social Security disability finding should be remanded for further administrative review. With the parties’ consent, a magistrate judge may also preside over a civil trial.

Magistrate judges also routinely rely on clerks to assist them in criminal matters. On the criminal docket, magistrate judges are often heavily involved in detention hearings, arraignments, among other issues. Depending on the district, a magistrate judge may preside over a criminal defendant’s Rule 11 hearing regarding a guilty plea.

Generally, magistrate judges will have one opening for a law clerk position, which might be for either a term or a permanent position, depending on the chambers. These clerkships can be especially valuable for applicants wishing to deepen their understanding of the mechanics of litigation and criminal procedure.

Bankruptcy Judge Clerkships

Federal bankruptcy courts exist across the country, as federal law governs both personal and corporate bankruptcy. The nation’s bankruptcy judgeships number around 350, and these bankruptcy judges preside over the approximately 800,000 bankruptcy cases that have been filed in the last 12 months alone. Unlike their Article III counterparts who serve lifetime terms, federal bankruptcy judges are appointed by each circuit for renewable 14-year terms. Bankruptcy judges handle both personal and commercial bankruptcy cases, with judges who hire law clerks usually hiring a clerk on a career or term basis.

As a subject-matter specific court, bankruptcy courts expose clerks to legal research tasks and provide them opportunities to gain insight into the practice of bankruptcy law. Tasks may include drafting bench memoranda, researching a point of law, or assisting bankruptcy judges as they conduct hearings. Other assignments might involve evaluating various motions, attending bankruptcy proceedings, reviewing bankruptcy forms, and interacting with the Department of Justice US Trustee program, which oversees and administers in most of the nation’s bankruptcy cases.

Other Federal Clerkships

Even more federal clerkship opportunities abound—at the Court of International Trade, the Tax Court, and the Court of Federal Claims, to name a few others. Pursing a clerkship with an Article III judge is not the sole route into a federal judge’s chambers. And bear in mind that with the demise of the planned hiring system, federal judges set their own time lines for hiring. Some judges throughout the federal system hire applicants while they are still completing law school; others prefer experience after law school or a prior clerkship.

Staff Attorney Positions

Similar in role to law clerks but different in name, staff attorneys provide crucial assistance to the federal courts at both the district and appellate levels. As their title suggests, staff attorneys are categorically not chambers law clerks. Instead of working with one judge, courts employ staff attorneys to work across different chambers’ caseloads. As a result, these positions offer substantial legal research and writing opportunities but may have limited opportunities to interact with individual judges.

While each circuit utilizes its appellate staff attorneys differently, assignments may include working with multiple judges and chambers on issues related to Social Security disability claims, immigration cases, or prison litigation matters. Circuits may post information about appellate staff attorney positions on their website or on OSCAR.

In the district courts, pro se staff attorneys often coordinate the court’s review of unrepresented parties filing briefs before the court. Such cases largely consist of prisoner litigation cases, wherein prisoners file civil suits while incarcerated. “Many people do not realize that prisoner litigation comprises a substantial percentage of the cases filed each year in federal court,” according to Emily E. Lewis, a pro se staff attorney in the Western District of North Carolina. Lewis also noted that “given the large number of prisoner litigation matters, the work of pro se law clerks is invaluable.”

Lawyers considering employment with the federal courts may understandably think that Article III chambers are the only game in town. Far from it. Opportunities outside an Article III chambers would provide substantial legal writing and research tasks and contribute to the functioning of the nation’s federal courts.