Judges at the state and federal levels in the United States employ assistants called law clerks to help them manage the paperwork and to shape and articulate the decisions they make on cases that come before their court.
Although the term “clerk” may indicate an administrative profession, this position is actually one reserved for junior apprentice judges or attorneys qualified to conduct legal research and express some analysis on how and why a case was decided the way it was.
Recent law school graduates are typically the ones qualified for these jobs, with most federal judges requiring clerks in their employ to have studied law review. In general, these coveted jobs are reserved for law students who graduated at the top of their class. In fact, many of today’s notable judges and professors began their careers as law clerks.
Clerkships for most state and federal judges run for one or two years. This gives judges the benefit of always having fresh, energetic law school grads to work with who are excited to bring new thoughts and ideas into their chambers. And, in turn, the clerks gain invaluable practical experience in the nuts and bolts of the American legal system.
Although there is no particular requirement that clerks be recent law school graduates (California, for example, hires experienced lawyers for clerk positions, who they call staff attorneys), in practice that is how the system has evolved in most of the United States.
Because law clerks are not required to pass the bar exam, they may not play an active role in a court proceeding. They are, however, generally authorized to conduct arbitration.
Law Clerk Job Description
Working as the right hand to a judge and being privy to the process by which legal rulings are handed down is a prestigious opportunity that offers a unique perspective on the judicial process. Some of the job duties assigned to law clerks include:
- Providing assistance in courtroom proceedings (trials, hearings, bail motions, etc.)
- Managing evidentiary exhibits
- Performing legal research and advise judge and other members of the legal team on the facts of a case prior to the oral argument
- Drafting trial briefs and other legal documents
- Reviewing and verify briefs and legal authority
- Researching and write bench memoranda, order and opinions
- Maintaining chambers library and supervise chambers staff
- Making recommendations on the disposition of appeals
- Deliver subpoenas
- Taking sworn statements from witnesses
Clerking is something like an apprenticeship for law school graduates on the fast track. Getting a clerkship with a prominent or well-respected judge is viewed as a way to put a particular polish on a successful law school career.
The position is not explicitly about education, however. Clerking involves real work, lots of it, as overburdened judges shift as much of their daily tasks as possible over to clerks. Judges have the ultimate say on how their own courtrooms are organized and have different perspectives on what work they should delegate to clerks. The work usually involves:
- Conducting legal research.
- Verifying citations.
- Proofreading the judge’s orders and opinions.
- Communicating with counsel regarding case management and procedural requirements.
Additionally, depending on both the judge and the relative capabilities of the clerk, clerks may be asked to:
- Prepare bench memos.
- Draft orders and opinions.
- Assist the judge during courtroom proceedings.
- Handle other administrative duties in the judicial office.
An Apprenticeship In The Law: Clerking Offers Inside Perspective on the Judicial System
A position as a law clerk serves as an invaluable real world education in what judges and juries actually look at and how they make decisions in cases. Most judges will actively encourage their clerks to engage in debate over the merits and arguments of cases that come before their court, shaping their perspective through dialogue.
An astute clerk will pick up more in a year of clerking than they did during their entire time in law school.
Clerking in certain courts may serve as preparation for working in a particular legal field. In every clerkship, clerks will meet and interact with lawyers, judges, and other officials with business before the court, providing them with networking opportunities in that jurisdiction that will serve them well later in their careers.
Beyond that, certain federal district courts are frequent venues for certain types of cases that can provide clerks with specialized experience in those fields:
- The Southern District of New York for commercial litigation.
- The Eastern District of Texas for intellectual property law cases.
- The Northern District of California for anti-trust cases.
- The District of Columbia for actions involving the federal government.
Even some state courts offer this sort of specialized experience; for example, because of the corporate laws of Delaware, many multinational companies choose to incorporate there, making the Delaware Court of Chancery a common venue for shareholder and other corporate litigation… a great place to prepare for a career as a corporate lawyer.
The benefits of a prestigious clerkship are considerable. Clerking unquestionably looks good on a resume, and can have a profound impact on career trajectory. In fact, four of the justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court launched their own careers clerking for Supreme Court justices.
According to a 2010 New York Times article, the signing bonus at a private firm for an attorney coming out of a Supreme Court clerkship can be to $250,000. So even a lawyer not destined for the high court can do very well just by clerking for the right judge.
How to Become a Law Clerk
There is fierce competition for clerk positions and not all graduates will find one.
Judges in the United States have vast power and enjoy deference both in and outside the courtroom. The position is one of enormous responsibility and frequently involves a lifetime appointment, designed to shield judicial decisions from the whims of public opinion.
Among their sole, unchallenged decisions are who they decide to hire as clerks. Individual judges have criteria in place that are as different and independent as they are when interpreting the law. These criteria aren’t always strictly job-related; judges have been known to pick clerks who can help them run local chess clubs or compete in pick-up basketball games.
Typically, a clerk will only serve a single judge for a maximum of two years before moving on to a more typical legal career track. However, for some particularly prestigious clerkships, such as those for the Supreme Court, clerks may first serve in a lower court (usually, one of the federal Courts of Appeals) before applying.
Some judges also hire permanent clerks, although these permanent positions would typically be reserved for just of the few different clerks they employ.
Education for Law Clerks
Because most judges require law clerks to be recent law school graduates, generally, law clerks possess a master’s degree in law, a specialized legal master’s degree (e.g., public policy or international law), or a Juris Doctor (JD) degree.
And, because these jobs are very writing and research-intensive, law clerks must possess excellent written communication skills and have a well-rounded understanding of many areas of law, court procedures, court systems, and jurisdictional rules.
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Most judges want clerks who are strong writers. Clerks are often responsible for drafting decisions, and the more cleanly and clearly they do so, the less work it will be for the judge to polish and complete.
Judges, of course, are fully aware of the advantages they are bestowing on their chosen candidates. Most make a considerable effort to find candidates who are not only qualified for the clerkship itself, but who appear likely to go on to greater things in the field of law.
There is also, in some courts, a certain philosophical standard that candidates will be evaluated on. On the highly politicized Supreme Court, justices increasingly select clerks who share their own political views. This trend is relatively recent and may reverse again at some point. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, was known for ensuring that at least one of his four clerks did not share his own ideology, ensuring that he would hear arguments from both sides of political debates.
Finding Clerkships to Apply For
For state courts, potential clerks have to seek out and apply directly to judges they are interested in working for.
For graduates looking for federal clerkships, the federal judiciary has established OSCAR (Online System for Clerkship Application and Review),
a centralized application system. This makes applying for clerkships with multiple federal judges a snap.
It’s usually considered common courtesy to apply for a clerkship with every judge in a particular court. Supreme Court clerks, for example, commonly apply with every justice, even though they may only hope to actually land a position with a particular one.
Turning down any offer of clerkship is considered very bad form, which can lead to situations where clerks end up working for a judge they didn’t particularly want to work for.
Many top-end law schools have counselors who specialize in helping connect students with judges for clerkships. Providing clerks to prominent judges looks good for the school and counselors can help line up both interviews and recommendations.
Recommendations are pure gold for clerkships. Finding a former clerk or well-respected member of the local bar to put in a good word for you can help seal the deal before you even interview.
Your law school is also a major consideration for most judges. Only 8 of the 36 Supreme Court clerks serving in 2017 came from a law school outside the top ten in the United States.
Salary Statistics for Law Clerks
As of May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported an average salary of $43,490, or $20.91 per hour for law clerks. Those at the top of the pay scale (top 10%) earned about $62,970, or $30.28 per hour during this time.
As expected, the average salary for law clerks varies according to the level of government they work for:
- State government: $47,240 ($22.71 per hour)
- Local government: $42,310 ($20.34 per hour)
As of May 2020, law clerks in the following states reported the highest average salaries:
- New York: $59,880
- Washington: $54,440
- Connecticut: $53,760
- Alaska: $53,030
- Rhode Island: $52,980
2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary data and job market trends for court, municipal, and license clerks reflect state and national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2022.