Not to be confused with a courtroom clerk, a judicial law clerk works directly for a judge. Much like a judge’s “associate,” a judicial law clerk assists the judge in considering, understanding, and deciding cases. It is a unique opportunity to look (and participate) behind the curtain of our judicial system. Judicial law clerks assist judges in analyzing parties’ written and oral arguments, researching and helping to narrow relevant and/or dispositive legal issues, and drafting legal decisions. Beyond their important role in helping a judge manage and decide the issue of the day, law clerks can also help shape case precedent that may be applied well beyond their terms as clerks.
Judges hire “term” and “career” law clerks. Term clerkships, as the name suggests, are for a defined term, usually one or two years. Career law clerks usually spend much longer working for a judge. Given the unique and rewarding substantive experience available to judicial law clerks, unsurprisingly, the positions are highly sought after. Judges, and particularly federal judges, receive many applications for a very limited (generally two-four, depending on the court) number of positions. Indeed, judges generally decide to interview a small fraction of clerkship applicants for a given position. Some judges prefer to hire clerks directly out of law school (generally, at the top of their class), whereas other judges prefer clerks to come to chambers after one or more years of practice. Many judges prefer to hire clerks with a range of experience.
Regardless of when they arrive to chambers, a judicial clerkship should prove to be an immensely engaging and rewarding experience. Law clerks get the opportunity to learn directly under an experienced judge and practitioner, who becomes a life-long mentor. Unlike large law firms, chambers are leanly staffed, which means law clerks get consistent and comprehensive substantive experience out of the gate, playing a major role in all or most aspects of the cases they work on. Often attending trials, hearings, and conferences, law clerks get the opportunity to observe a range of attorneys (and their styles) before the Court. Law clerks get a front-row seat to great lawyers at work, allowing them to pick up what they think works well—or does not—to bring forward into their litigation practice. In reading and analyzing countless briefs and written submissions, law clerks also take in examples of good—and not-so-good—legal writing. Attorneys fortunate enough to clerk for a judge should finish their terms having gained invaluable legal experience. I sure did. And I look back very fondly on both my clerkships.
Attorney Matthew W. Costello