You accepted a clerkship; now what? A to-do list for before your first day
Jennifer L. Eaton
‘Tis the season. No, not for holiday shopping (thankfully), but for law clerk hiring. Prospective clerks are hearing back on offers for next year right about now, and it’s never too early to begin preparing. I often muse on my time as a law clerk and the rewards of the experience. And although articles abound regarding the benefits of a clerkship, there are few that offer advice to incoming clerks on what they should do to prepare for the experience.
Below, I’m offering some tips that strive to do just that. For those about to begin what can best be described as a career-launching endeavor, here is what I wish I would have known:
1. Familiarize yourself with the court’s docket and local rules. What is the court’s ratio of civil to criminal cases? Does the court have a set schedule for motions hearings or grand juries? Figure out the court’s schedule in advance to minimize surprises and manage your expectations regarding the types of cases you will encounter during your time there. If the court has a high volume of criminal matters, and you are more civil-minded, take some time before the clerkship begins to review criminal procedure and motions practice. Does your court have local rules? If so, read them so you can better understand and anticipate the day-to-day routine and so you are better prepared to identify missteps.
2. Go to court and observe the docket. Oral arguments on substantive issues and dispositive motions are fascinating, but most of what you do as a law clerk will relate to the day-to-day docket of the court. If you will be clerking for a trial court, the daily docket can seem a bit dry at first, but there is much to learn from these proceedings. Courtroom etiquette and demeanor are best appreciated in person. And if you want to litigate eventually, it is nice to watch other people make mistakes so you can learn from them instead of making the same mistakes yourself. If geographically convenient, sit in on your own judge’s docket, as this will be the best example of what your life will be like as a clerk. If your court is not close, and there is not another comparable court nearby, consider listening to oral arguments online. Many appellate-level courts post their oral arguments for the public. You won’t be able to glean the same insights from these recordings, but you will still be able to identify what makes a good oral argument and what makes a poor one.
3. Read as much as you can before the clerkship. Take the time to read published opinions and orders. Do not limit yourself to just your judge or court, but sample from a variety of courts. Opinion writing is not like other forms of writing. And as odd as it may seem, think of opinion writing like poetry. Just like poetry flows off the tongue, opinions should too; their words strive to simplify the complex in a succinct way. There is a structure and pattern to judicial writing: Learn it. Broadening your exposure to different writing styles early on will help flatten the learning curve when you take on drafting that first opinion or order. And reading opinions also increases your familiarity with different legal issues that may come up during your clerkship or when you begin practicing law. Also, to the extent you can, look for cues as to your judge’s respective style. Does she prefer one space or two after a period? Does she organize her opinions in a certain way? These little stylistic points will be good to know and will show that you care enough to appreciate the details.
4. Work on your own writing. Try and stay fresh with your writing. For some of the same reasons that reading opinions is important, writing is too. Opinion writing—especially with a busy docket—can feel like a never-ending marathon. But just like a marathon, it is something you can train for, at least to a certain extent. Whether you are writing a note for your law school’s journal or just writing for fun, you will improve your writing speed and efficiency.
5. Reach out to former law clerks. One of the great things about being a law clerk is the associated network. Most judges maintain a list of contact information about their former clerks. If your judge does not keep such a directory, you might also be able to find contact information on former clerks online. If your judge is new to the bench or if you cannot identify any former clerks, reach out to other clerks from the same court. Not only are former law clerks great sources of advice regarding your clerkship, they can also be helpful as you prepare to embark on your legal career. Think of former law clerks as built-in mentors for the clerkship experience and beyond.
6. Have lunch or spend a day shadowing the current clerk. A shadowing opportunity is a good opportunity for you to have a trial run of your first day, but shadowing may not be an option. If it is not, consider inviting your judge’s current clerk to lunch. This interaction will be a good opportunity to touch base and, as your clerkship approaches, the clerk will be able to give you an idea of the nature and volume of pending matters.
7. Think about job prospects. A fortunate few enter a clerkship with a clear, post-clerkship path. If this is you, great. If not, and if you haven’t already, make a list of prospective employers and start monitoring job opportunities early. Although it is true that many employers have immediate needs that cannot wait, some will be more than willing to wait for you to fulfill your tenure, because it provides them with valuable experience. This prospective employer list is also helpful as you begin watching court proceedings. Look for trends. Disorganized or rude attorneys in the courtroom probably mean they are disorganized and rude employers.
8. Join local bar associations. As a law clerk, you provide unique value to bar associations and other legal associations: You are a gateway from the bench to the bar. You can help facilitate continuing education programs and other speaking engagements with your judge and perhaps even other judges at the same court. This is a great way for you and your judge to work on something collaboratively during your clerkship, and it helps you get to know attorneys in the community in a nonadversarial context. Many bar associations allow students to join, which will give you a head start.
9. Make a wish list of things that you want to accomplish during your tenure. The time goes by much faster than you think, and it is a good idea to create a list of desired accomplishments in advance to keep yourself accountable. Share your list with your judge early on so he or she can help you accomplish your goals. Most judges want to be mentors and view the clerkship as a mutually beneficial experience. Don’t be shy about expressing your goals and revising them as necessary. This goal-oriented approach is also good practice for when you start your career in private practice or elsewhere.
10. Ask others for advice. This last point is important: There is no one clerkship guru. Seek advice from multiple sources. Keep in touch with your friends who are also clerking and compare notes as you prepare for and start your clerk journey. As with most things, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Listen to the wisdom of others and chart your own course.
There are many ways you can put your clerkship experience to good use after the fact, but that is for another time. For now, prepare. As you will learn, a good law clerk is always prepared. And once your clerkship starts, try to enjoy your clerkship experience, because it goes by too fast. To my future fellow clerks, may the road rise to meet you.
Jennifer L. Eaton is a civil litigator at Vandeventer Black in Norfolk, Virginia. Prior to her time in private practice, she was a law clerk for the 4th Judicial Circuit of Virginia.
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