Leverage Your Judicial Clerkship for a Successful Private Sector Career: The Organized Law Clerk: Lists to Keep
By Christine Schleppegrell • February 02, 2013•Writers in Residence
Last month I covered how to join local networking groups in order to leverage your clerkship into a promising private sector career. This month I discuss how to start preparing early for the impending job search.
During your clerkship you will surely become acquainted with the nuances of litigation and will no doubt expand your knowledge of substantive law. Although your mind may be caught up in complex legal issues, it is important to focus on how your day to day tasks tie into your long-term career plan. Maintaining the lists discussed below will help you organize your job search and obtain your career aspirations.
The goal of this exercise is to train yourself to conceptualize your experience in broad terms and then categorize your knowledge in a manner that will appeal to firms with specific practice groups. On the flip side, if you are targeting boutique firms, recognize that your versatility, rather than your expertise in a certain area of law will be your selling point.
After consulting former term clerks now in private practice, I came up with the following lists:
Writing Samples: maintain a folder on your desktop with bench notes and write ups* that showcase your research skills and analytical abilities. While your appointing judge may publish opinions that incorporate your research, excerpts from published decisions are obviously not appropriate writing samples. However, it is appropriate for the judge to guide your research on a given topic. Depending on the appointing judge, an example of your own work may be a draft of the published opinion that is entirely your own work and does not incorporate any of the judge’s changes.
If you are clerking in a specialty court such as Tax Court or Bankruptcy Court, but are targeting firms with a general business litigation practice, try using a writing sample from a trial/adversary proceeding or bench memo. It is important to prepare writing samples in various categories to demonstrate that you are versatile and can easily apply what you have learned in chambers to private practice litigation. Failing to present your experience in a broad light could make it difficult for you to convince interviewers that you have what it takes to hit the ground running in a civil litigation practice. It is best to anticipate such skepticism on the part of interviewers, prepare a response, and provide supporting evidence (writing samples).
Firms: As you read more than a few pleadings a day and watch more than a few attorneys appear in court you will gain a better understanding of the type of firm you would like to work for. While an attorney appearing on behalf of a firm is only one representative of the firm, s/he still informs your perspective on firm culture and the substantive practice. Keep track of all firms with a noteworthy motion practice by listing the firm name and attorney appearing. I recommend organizing your list by firm size and geographic region. For example, make a list of the geographic regions you plan to target in your job search. Then, underneath each of these headings make subheadings for large, medium, and small firms. Finally, underneath the subheadings list firm names. This practice will help you organize your job search throughout your term while keeping your ultimate goal, securing a private practice position, at the forefront of your mind.
Project List: This may be the most important list you keep. A project list should include a series of subheadings, including
Titles of the motions you review.
Legal issues you researched: A list of issues serves as “evidence” of your contribution to the firm. A former clerk who successfully transitioned into private practice mentioned that she continued to maintain a project list while in private practice. She said that her project list helped prepare her for her annual performance review and showcased her hard work when it came time for partners to award bonuses.
Leadership experience: Example, managing externs/interns or training incoming clerks. Show that you are a team player by demonstrating that you can manage your own workload and support others. These skills may be especially important at smaller firms where attorneys must wear many hats.
Calendars you managed: Example, you clerk in Bankruptcy Court and prepared the Chapter 11 Law and Motion calendar.
Trials: Example, you drafted bench notes and researched legal issues. If possible emphasize any experience you have with discovery related issues. You may consider listing discovery rules that you researched if a discovery dispute was before your appointing judge. Since discovery is not filed with the court, judicial clerks may have difficulty understanding the discovery process once they enter private practice.
High-profile cases: These can be great conversation starters in an interview. Consider listing notable rulings. Whether you have experience drafting and/or editing rulings will depend on the judge you work for. Some judges compose their own rulings while others allow clerks to participate in and learn from the drafting process. If you choose to include notable rulings be sure to shepardize the decisions periodically to make sure the decision has not been appealed or overturned.
Cross reference your list: Organize the list of projects by subject matter. Example, group all the projects that pertain to real estate together, group the projects that deal with procedural research together, etc.
Analysis Checklist: This is particularly helpful if you plan to hang out your own shingle in the future and become a solo practitioner. An analysis checklist is very similar to the checklists you made during law school as you prepared for exams. Similarly, bar preparation courses emphasize the importance of adopting a streamlined approach to analyzing legal topics. These checklists are particularly important when dealing with dispositive motions, such as motions for summary judgment or motions to dismiss. It is important to learn how to systematically break down complex legal issues into manageable, component parts.
Example, I maintain an analysis checklist organized by motion. When I start to analyze a motion I look at the name of the motion, search my analysis checklist for that same title, and see if I have a step-by-step approach.
Of course individual firms do things differently and the firm you end up at may take a unique approach to analyzing the same motion. Nevertheless, maintaining a checklist can help you both grasp the larger concepts underlying the movant’s request and will help you organize your thoughts while working under time constraints. If nothing else, the checklist will reassure you that you have experience analyzing a specific type of motion.
Former Clerks to Contact: Tying in last month’s theme of the importance of networking, the clerks who previously worked for your appointing judge or for other judges in the same district are a valuable resource. The majority of these former clerks are probably practicing attorneys, likely in your geographic area. You will probably learn the names of the judges’ former clerks and the firms they now practice with. If such news does not travel by word of mouth in your chambers, peruse the profiles of attorneys who appear in your court. Attorneys with clerkship experience often showcase their time in chambers via online profiles on firm websites. Make a list of the names and firms of former clerks and consider contacting these individuals for coffee or lunch as you start your job search. Remember that it is important to be aware of cases before your appointing judge that involve a former clerk and/or the firm the former clerk works for. Contact with attorneys in private practice is not prohibited, but it is important to be aware of cases before your appointing judge and to make sure that you respect confidentiality boundaries.
*Judges may use different terms to refer to the analytical work of their law clerks. A “write up” is an analysis of a motion that summarizes the parties’ arguments, identifies the issue(s), identifies applicable law, and applies the law to the facts so as to dispose of the motion.