Decisions, Decisions: Choosing a Clerkship (or a Firm Job)

I find myself comparing the search for a clerkship to the callback process one suffers through as a 2L. Sitting in the airport, again, listening to my fellow classmates talking about how many offers they received from various firms, I find my mind wandering to those 3Ls who are applying to hundreds of clerkships with the hope that one might work out. In both interviewing with law firms and applying to clerkships, it seems as though each process lacks a discretion that we normally use in our lives. Our future employment is an incredibly important decision. We are deciding on a lifestyle choice, where we will set up residency, the type of work we will receive, how we will be treated. And yet, it seems to me that students, especially those who have eight, nine, ten offers of employment, don't think about these future matters which bear so greatly on their lives but instead go to sources like the vault.com, "the American Lawyer Review," and other such lists that rank law firms by prestige.

The student who has offers of clerkships from trial court judges whose chambers are not as prestigious as the appellate division may, however, live a better lifestyle and have more interesting and substantive work. Yet, the "prestige factor" of what court is perceived as being a better resume builder overshadows these qualitative determinations. This mode of thinking is comparative to the one that students use when choosing law firm jobs. Smaller firms might offer more substantive work or more face time with partners, but most often, where a student chooses to work centers on how high the firm ranks in various charts.

In academia, one would hope that the quality of work one receives would be of utmost importance in choosing one's future employment. Yet because of the pressures of today's modern society, this notion is turned on its head by the need to be at "the best" law firm or to clerk for the highest court judge. We use this decision-making when choosing colleges, law schools, and even friends. When receiving our letters of admission for law school, most of us choose to go to the highest ranked law school, instead of, perhaps, where we feel we would fit in the best or learn the most. Even when choosing friends, many people, often termed "social climbers," seek out the richest, prettiest, most intelligent, and most connected in choosing with whom to associate.

Although this is a sad fact, I am clueless as to how to change this view of the world in which "the best" has become the same "the most prestigious." With modern society stuck in this state of mind, one wonders if this is why more people find themselves unhappy in their lives.



I sympathize with your observations, Ferguson.  A lot of my friends struggled with the decision of whether or not to apply for clerkships because even though they didn't really like legal writing or particularly want to spend a year doing research all day, clerkships are perceived as "the thing you do to get ahead," much like trying for Law Review or, as you point out, choosing the highest ranked law school are "the things to do to get ahead."  What people spend less time asking themselves is where this mysterious "ahead" will lead or whether your "ahead" really requires the traditional prestige path to achieve.  If you want to be a judge or a professor, then a clerkship might be the way to go.  Of course, plenty of judges and law professors didn't clerk and still find a way into those professions.  Likewise, plenty of people end up in every type of dream job without working at the most prestigious firms or going to the most prestigious law schools.  Finally, plenty of people end up in these "dream" jobs who actually don't feel like they are living the dream but simply follow a poorly thought out "getting ahead" track of conventional wisdom that leads somewhere they don't actually want to go.  In my opinion, it's far better to spend time thinking about what type of job would truly make you happy and then putting time into building skills that will help you in that job than following the prestige path.  Then, regardless of whether or not you start out at the first or last ranked law school or law firm, you will as a person bring the skills to your professional life that you need to get ahead based on your own merit and not on your resume.


Here's the thing… the first job out of law school for many people is a lot more about building a resume than about finding the perfect job.  This goes for private practice, fellowships, government jobs, and clerkships. 
While it is true that the right person can land their dream job regardless of what their resume looks like, it is also true that a strong resume can help.  I would argue that the only time you need to consider factors other than how a job will look on your resume is when you really believe that this is going to be the last job you ever take.  At that point, you are deciding/hoping that you won't ever be circulating that resume again anyway.


As some one who is clerking now, can I just say it's worth considering-no matter what your personal ambitions or preferences.
I wasn't sure that clerking made a lot of sense for me, because I don't plan on practicing as a litigator. But everyone I spoke to in law school told me that clerking was the best job they ever had, so I applied.
Now I'm a few months in and I totally agree.  I am so glad I'm here.  Right out of law school clerking gives you more responisbility than any other job, so far as I can tell.  Clerks are the first to read and respond to the brief sent over by the senior partner.  Now obviously, my judge is ultimately responsible for everything the Court issues, but my exposure to the inner workings of the Court is unmatched by any other position. This job has taught me so much about what distinguishes good legal writing and argument from the pack and what the court really needs to reach a decision. There's also a forest for the trees experience-seeing not just the substantive motions, but how the mechanics of discovery, scheduling, etc. impact litigation generally.
Obviously clerking is not for everyone. But I don't think there's harm in everyone giving it some serious consideration.  The benefits of this kind of intimate mentorship and expert guidance are hard to come by.

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