Christine Schleppegrell

Leverage Your Judicial Clerkship for a Successful Private Sector Career: Build and Maintain Your Professional Network

Currently clerking or considering a judicial clerkship in hopes of landing a stellar firm job? Wondering how to apply the skills developed during your clerkship in a law firm setting? Confused about how to network and plant the seeds for a job opportunity while respecting confidentiality boundaries?

If any of these questions piqued your interest then stay tuned for advice on how to transform your time in chambers into a successful career as a practicing attorney. As a newly licensed attorney who practiced briefly before starting a term clerkship in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, I provide a unique perspective on how to build a professional network and develop the skills necessary to land your dream job.

The best New Year’s Resolution to improve your career prospects while in chambers is to realize the value of building and maintaining a strong professional network. The contacts you form in 2013 will provide the vehicle for career advancement, provide a mechanism for job security, and serve as your ticket to the world of private practice. Judicial law clerks face several opportunities and tough choices come the New Year such as joining professional associations, updating online networking profiles, and maintaining an active bar license.

Join Local Networking Groups: Be sure to join the local bar association as well as any section that your appointing judge is involved in. If you clerk for a general court such as United States District Court or state Superior Court, take a look at who the officers of the different sections are. Do these attorneys belong to firms you would like to work for? Do they appear regularly before your appointing judge? If the answer to either of these questions is “no” keep looking for a networking opportunity that will be a valuable time investment and will result in future job opportunities.

If you clerk for a specialty court such as Tax or Bankruptcy Court, consider joining the tax or bankruptcy sections. If the bar association does not have a section dedicated to bankruptcy usually the business litigation section covers corporate insolvency issues. If you identify with an underrepresented group, such as minorities or women, consider joining the local women lawyers organization or minority bar association. These opportunities allow you to network across practice areas while contributing to great causes!

If you clerk in a geographically remote area or in an area in which you do not plan to practice you may have to create your own networking opportunities. Consider asking for permission to leave work early one or two days a month to attend networking groups in your target region. Alternatively, try to organize casual weekend networking events such as Saturday lunches and happy hours. In my experience many attorneys are happy to meet up with friends on the weekend and share developments in their careers and personal lives.

If you have a friend who is a practicing attorney nearby schedule a standing lunch or dinner every two to three weeks so that you can learn more about his/her practice area.

Recognize a theme? The importance of showing up regularly to an organized networking group will help establish a solid relationship with practicing attorneys and will provide greater insight into the work-life balance specific to certain practice areas. In addition, you will become familiar with substantive developments in a particular area of law.

Another great networking organization that facilitates interaction among all levels of the legal profession is the American Inns of Court. The American Inns of Court provide opportunities for networking, public speaking, and socializing with attorneys at all levels. Most Inns are associated with a local law school, but draw the attendance and participation of local judges and experienced practitioners. The Inns usually accommodate membership of eighty to one hundred attorneys, law students, and judges combined each year. The larger group is split into smaller sections called “pupillages,” each of which is responsible for a presentation at monthly meetings. Some Inns are subject-specific such as the Seattle Intellectual Property Inn and the Congressman Don E. Edwards Bankruptcy Inn while others are more general such as the Callahan Inn of Court.

LinkedIn and Professional Networking Sites: Federal clerks, during the first week of their clerkship, will receive a clerkship handbook. Mine is titled “Maintaining the Public Trust: Ethics for Federal Judicial Law Clerks.” Be sure to review the confidentiality and online activities sections. The former addresses how to approach interactions with attorneys in private practice. This and any materials you received during your orientation with human resources will provide guidelines for how much information you can disclose on public and semi-public online profiles. Most clerks assigned to a specific judge indicate on LinkedIn that s/he is the “Law Clerk to the Honorable xxxx.” Alternatively, if you work for multiple judges or your appointing judge has stricter social media policies you can simply state that you are a “Law Clerk in [enter court name].” When in doubt ask your appointing judge, other clerks, or human resources what titles are appropriate.

Bar License Renewal: It’s that time again. The New Year means that bar membership fees are due and clerks who have one to two years left in their terms are debating whether they should pay hundreds of dollars to maintain an active status with the state bar. For recent bar passers I recommend that you pay annual dues and ask your appointing judge to swear you in. In California, as in other states, your status with the state bar is searchable online and delaying your admittance date may lead to questions in a future interview. For example, in California the bar exam is administered twice a year. If practitioners see an admittance date that is in the spring or early summer they may assume that the individual failed the bar on the first try. However, this individual could have passed the bar on the first try and delayed his/her admittance date to avoid paying bar fees. Unfortunately, failing the bar and a delayed start date appear to be one and the same. Further, you will want to state in future interviews that you have been a licensed attorney for the longest period of time possible. If you are a new admittee and are clerking I recommend admittance only in the districts that do not require a substantial fee. Should you find a job in the private sector your firm will likely cover admittance expenses.

Respect Confidentiality Boundaries: Clerks, compared to attorneys in private practice, face a few additional barriers to networking. First, clerks must avoid the appearance of impropriety (and yes, of course avoid actual impropriety) when socializing with attorneys who have cases before the clerk’s appointing judge. This does not necessarily mean that clerks cannot have contact with the attorneys who appear in front of the appointing judge. Be sure to consult your appointing judge as some members of the judiciary take a unique stance on this issue. Your relationship with attorneys may have preceded the subject case and even your position as a clerk. In such scenarios, judges are less likely to ask you to avoid all contact. It never hurts to ask and it is best to make sure that you do not miss out on networking activities that could expand your professional horizon.

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