My First Year… as a Federal Court of Appeals Law Clerk
By Ms. JD Staff • February 01, 2010•Firms and the Private Sector
This is the first post in a new series called "My First Year..." In this series, which will appear the first week of each month, we will feature interviews of women as they begin putting their JDs to work in a variety of fields all over the country. Each interviewee will answer a standard set of questions about her first year. We hope this project will give law students and new attorneys a realistic picture about what life is like during the junior years of a legal career.
Today we launch our series with the interview of a Federal Court of Appeals Law Clerk...
How did you decide to pursue this position--was this something you envisioned yourself doing when you applied to law school, or was this something you learned about in school or during your summer?
Having taught middle- and high-school English before entering law school, I had a pretty clear plan about what I wanted to accomplish in and after law school. One of my goals was to pursue a federal appellate clerkship. That being said, just because it was a “goal” didn’t mean I had any clue how to go about making it happen (or what the job would actually entail). Still, it was a goal I hoped I could make happen.
Describe a typical day on the job...
Silence. And more silence. Seriously, mine is a very solitary job. On a regular day, I come into the office, sit down, and spend the day either researching, writing, or editing. (To be more specific, my three main tasks are to (1) prepare bench memoranda to the panel summarizing the facts and law of a case and recommending a disposition, (2) draft opinions after oral arguments, and (3) edit other judge’s opinions. Keep in mind that at the appellate level, most matters are heard by a three-judge panel, and most judges sit only about once a month or so. Often applicants think they will be “in court” a lot, which just isn’t so. Lack of hustle and bustle (and human interaction) doesn’t bother me, but it might bother some. If you don’t like being alone with your thoughts, this is not the job for you!
What is the most rewarding thing about your job so far?
The most rewarding thing about my job is the daily contact I have with my judge. I am able to observe how he approaches cases and applies the law to them. There really is no better experience to prepare you for practicing law than seeing how a judge thinks through a case.
To a lesser extent, I find it very rewarding to see opinions that I have drafted be published. Most people straight out of law school are relegated to performing pretty menial first-year associate tasks, but my co-clerks and I are drafting opinions some of which will end up in the reporters.
What is the most disappointing thing about your job so far?
The lack of feedback. Each judge is different, though, so my experience may not be the norm. On the other hand, having too much feedback also has its down side and the clerkship process is much like an apprenticeship, where one learns by observation and practice.
Is there anything you could have done in law school (or the summers between law school) that would have better prepared you for your position?
I would have taken Administrative Law. In the summer, I would have read through the last term’s Supreme Court decisions.
What advice would you give to someone looking find a position like yours and succeed in it?
Here are a few pieces of advice, for what they are worth:
Your 1L Year: Focus just on studying and preparing for exams. Period.
Don’t ignore unpaid summer opportunities. I interned for a district judge and also worked as a research assistant for one of my professors during my 1L summer. Although I didn’t know it at the time, these two experiences were invaluable. My internship at the district court level helped me to understand the mechanics of the trial process, which is essential for working on the appellate level. I also had daily contact with several federal judges. My work as a research assistant gave me practical research and writing experience. More importantly, my professor took an interest in my career and mentored me throughout law school and afterwards. I cannot stress how much more valuable these “unpaid” experiences were than working at a law firm for the summer. Those interested in government work down the road could consider also interning for the DOJ’s SLIP (Summer Law Intern Program). (You have to apply for this program pretty early in your 2L year.)
Get on your school’s journal and be active (i.e. publish and serve on the editorial board).Make sure you take classes in the following (at a bare minimum): Evidence, Administrative Law, and Federal Courts.
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sintecho February 06, 2010
I really appreciated hearing about what it’s actually like to clerk! Thanks for sharing!
bs28 February 21, 2015
As a federal district court clerk, I can’t help but think it would be extremely difficult for someone to clerk at the appellate level without understanding what goes on at the trial level. Could you please comment?