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Should you clerk after law school? (…Also, what is clerking?)

One of the aspects of a career in law that I find both appealing and frustrating is that the finish line is constantly moving. For example, when you first start thinking about becoming a lawyer, your goal is to get a good LSAT score and get into a good school. Then, the goal becomes to perform well in school, which can include a host of non-academic activities, such as journals and moot court.

After your first year, you go to a bunch of interviews and the goal becomes to land a summer position. Once you land a summer position, you have to do well in that position to get an offer to return to the firm. And once you’ve done all that, you have to pass the bar.

Becoming a lawyer and starting at a firm isn’t the finish line either — generally, most people don’t stay at a big law firm more than a few years. You have to start thinking about your exit options and the finish line moves further away. Unlike other careers, where you can settle in at a job and work there for decades, a legal career in a major market typically involves stops at a few different places over the years.

For many budding litigators, myself included, this constant pursuit also involves trying to land a clerkship. And that’s what this post is about. A clerkship is a one or two-year long position with a judge. This can include state or federal judges, or more specialized judges.

So, why clerk? First, clerking provides a great opportunity to experience different practice groups and to observe a variety of different lawyering styles. Coming out of law school, young lawyers generally know very little about the way law is actually practiced. Clerking provides useful insight into the practice of law that can help young associates choose the type of law they want to pursue.

Second, clerking is an unparalleled training opportunity. Clerks spend a large portion of their time writing, and they have the time to hone their craft. Unlike the mad dash pace of working at a big firm, most clerkships are a little more relaxed, so you can actually work on improving your writing without the constant pressure of looming deadlines.

Third, clerking gives you the opportunity to build a relationship with a judge. From the clerks I’ve spoken to, their judges generally become a life-long mentor. Most judges are highly experienced practitioners of law with a wealth of useful insight that they can help instill in their clerks.
Finally, clerking makes you more attractive to employers. For the reasons discussed above, firms and other employers look positively on clerks because, theoretically, they won’t have to spend as much time training them and because it looks impressive to a client. Beyond those reasons, a clerkship can also provide a useful launching pad for a career switch. For example, if an associate at a firm wants to move to government work, a clerkship is a great way to transition over.

Obviously, most of those reasons are more applicable to litigators than to transactional attorneys, who generally spend less time writing. If you’re interested in litigation, I would highly recommend trying to seek out a clerkship.

The clerkship hiring process now starts incredibly early — I know a lot of people who applied after their first year (and a few who applied after their first semester) of law school if they wanted to clerk right after graduation. The key to a strong clerkship application is building relationships with professors so you can get solid letters of recommendation and so faculty members will be more willing to call judges on your behalf.

As I said at the beginning, the finish line is always moving. If you’re applying to law school now, make sure you take the summer before law school to relax and recharge because, going forward, there are always going to be new goals and challenges awaiting you. It can be frustrating at times, and difficult to motivate yourself, but — at least in the case of clerking — I think the reward is worth the effort.