Value/Purpose of a Clerkship?

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ScottRiqui
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Value/Purpose of a Clerkship?

Postby ScottRiqui » Sun Dec 29, 2013 11:13 pm

I'm a little 'fuzzy' on where clerkships fit in the legal employment landscape. I know they're a good resumé bullet when applying to a firm, but is there an advantage to taking a clerkship over a firm job if you're in the enviable position of being able to do either one right after graduation? Is the two years of experience gained while clerking somehow 'better' than what you would get at your first two years in a firm? Or are clerkships more for people interested in becoming career clerks or judges?

Also, there's no 'time lost' if you go from a clerkship into a firm, right? That is, after a two-year clerkship, you'd usually start with a firm as a third-year associate? And if this is the case, is there any first/second-year associate experience that you would have missed out on while clerking, potentially putting you at a disadvantage?

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A. Nony Mouse
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Re: Value/Purpose of a Clerkship?

Postby A. Nony Mouse » Mon Dec 30, 2013 12:19 am

Clerking is not limited to those intending to become career clerks or judges, no. (There are very few career clerk positions and becoming a judge is so far down the road that clerking for that purpose seems kind of pointless to me.) The general argument for clerking is that it provides you with experience and connections that you can't get any other way. You work really closely with a judge, who serves as a mentor to you; you get exposed to a wide range of areas of law; you develop really great research and writing skills; you get a judge's-eye perspective on litigation; if a trial-level court, you get valuable exposure to how trials work; if appellate, you learn how to be a good appellate lawyer; you have a judge in your corner who will go to bat for you throughout your career; you have a built-in network with the judge's past and future clerks; you get a gold star to put on your resume.

I don't know if that's "better" experience than you'd get at a firm, but it's different from what you'd get at a firm. (Well, you may get exposure to different areas of law and develop your research/writing skills at a firm, but in a different way.)

Employment-wise, big firms tend to like former clerks, and there are some employers - particularly the federal government or elite litigation boutiques - who will not consider candidates who haven't clerked. So while you may have a firm offer coming out of law school, if you want to change firms down the line, a clerkship is arguably a useful credential. (Or go into academia - that basically requires clerking as well.)

Now, these are the ideal benefits. They're very litigation-focused - if you know for absolutely certain you're going to do corporate/transactional and never want to set foot in a courtroom, ever, clerking is much less relevant. I've seen corporate people say both that they were discouraged from clerking and that they were encouraged to clerk regardless, so it may depend on where you're working. (I know people who have clerked despite not intending to do litigation, so some people still do it.)

Clerking also may not work out so well in practice. Your experience as a clerk is very much determined by who you clerk for (and with). If you work for a great judge, you will have an excellent experience. If your judge is dumb, lazy, sadistic, or otherwise unpleasant, you will probably be pretty miserable, though it may or may not nonetheless be a valuable experience. (I had a law school prof who clerked for Kozinski - he said when he went to his firm the 80-hour weeks were a reduction in his workload. But I suspect clerking for Kozinski you'd still learn a lot, even if unhappily.) Your co-clerks make a difference too (you spend most of your time in chambers with the 3-5 other people in chambers - it's a very very small environment).

Generally, you don't "lose time" clerking - you get credit for the time you clerked. But how much can vary by firm (I believe - I'm going on anecdotes because I don't have personal experience with this). Two years of clerking will likely be credited, but beyond that it's less likely, and I think some firms don't like to give even two years. I also can't really comment on the experience you miss out on (again, no personal experience) - I've seen people say that clerking allows you to skip some of the worst mindless doc review parts of being a biglaw associate, but I've also seen biglaw associates working with clerks complain about them being staffed on matters as a 2nd or 3rd year without actually having those skills. So this also probably varies by firm. However, the firms that value clerking don't seem to care that you're missing out on those years.

The other issue to consider is pay - there are people who believe that clerking is not worth forgoing the $160K salary for a year. (Federal clerks make ~$60Kish, depending on where you are and how much experience you have; state clerkships vary but are generally somewhat to a lot less than that.) Firms generally give bonuses for federal clerkships (some may for state supreme courts, depending on the state), but not usually enough to make up the difference in pay (unless you're a SCOTUS clerk, maybe). Plenty of people still clerk, then go to firms, believing that the intangibles of clerking make up for the loss in pay, but not everyone agrees. (I went from a federal clerkship to a federal position that pays about $300/yr less than my clerkship, so I'm not the best person to weigh in on this aspect of things.)

However, clerking counts as public service for PSLF, so if you want to go that route, clerking isn't going to hurt you economically.

(Sorry to go on so long, it's just something I've thought a LOT about!)

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kalvano
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Re: Value/Purpose of a Clerkship?

Postby kalvano » Mon Dec 30, 2013 12:23 am

It's good preparation for a litigation career in that you get a look behind the curtain at what goes in in chambers after motions are filed and argued, etc. Plus, knowing a judge personally is rarely a bad thing. Mainly, it's a prestigious job (because it's very hard to get) and a job that people generally tend to enjoy very much. Very few people say they wish they hadn't clerked, even with lost salary if they had a job waiting.

A lot of firms will hold your job open or strongly encourage you to apply after the clerkship. For certain firms, a clerkship is a prerequisite to employment. However, firms treat clerks differently in terms of where you come in as and what level associate. Some firms you do lose a year, others you don't. Not all clerkships are two years, either. Most are one, and some people just do two.

As far as what you miss out on, you gain some experience but you do lose some practical experience in terms of the day to day life of being a practicing lawyer. That's the problem with giving people associate credit for clerking: there a things a 3rd-year associate is expected to be able to do you won't know how to do after clerking.

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ScottRiqui
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Re: Value/Purpose of a Clerkship?

Postby ScottRiqui » Mon Dec 30, 2013 9:49 am

Thanks for the replies - I'm still digesting them, but that's a lot of good information.

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Opinions_R_Us
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Re: Value/Purpose of a Clerkship?

Postby Opinions_R_Us » Mon Dec 30, 2013 11:46 am

I think Mouse pretty much nailed it. I only have two additional comments.

I would add is that firms generally like hiring former clerks because a judge is doing a lot of the training the firm would otherwise have to do (law school certainly doesn't actually prepare you to practice law) and in the end, the firm gets an associate who is both already highly trained and one who has a (presumably positive) relationship with a judge they will be practicing in front of. This is bound to help the firm in the long run.

The other observation I would offer is that the judge you clerk for is a big factor in how much benefit (both educationally and in terms of future employment prospects) you get from the clerkship. Judges rapidly get reputations (good or bad) for their ability to train young lawyers and if they have a reputation as both a good jurist and as a good mentor, their clerks can go far, if the judge doesn't have a particularly good reputation as either a jurist or as a mentor, the clerkship with that judge becomes a bit less marketable. In other words, generalizing about clerkships is all well and good and there is almost always going to be some benefit to a clerkship but in the end, the size of the benefit depends on the judge involved.




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