Whether you are a recent graduate working as a judicial clerk or have accepted a temporary multi-year position with a non-profit, a governmental legal office, or a think tank, you are probably staring down the barrel of a big question: what’s next?
A clerkship or fellowship is an inherently temporary position. You leave law school with the certainty of a role working for a top ranking judge, but with the same certainty that the role will one day come to an end. This does not make a temporary gig a bad choice, not by a longshot.
These jobs can jumpstart your career, give you a leg up when competing against other young attorneys and recent grads, and help you learn whether you’ve made the right choice for your career’s immediate future without having to make a permanent commitment.
Although this post will focus on clerking for a judge, the advice is universal to any temporary post-graduate position, and will veer into fellowship-specific analysis where possible.
Being Temporary Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing
Signing on for a one to four-year term with a judge can be a dream in law school. You apply through Kara or, more likely, learn through word of mouth about a potential opening in a chamber that suits your preferences. You go through the rigmarole of sitting down and interviewing with a judge thrice your age and intellectual capability.
The judge makes the offer, and you’re in. All of a sudden, you have nothing to worry about after your third year. Your path is set, and you’ll be a shoe-in for anything you want post-clerkship. You only need to show up, read some briefs, and write some opinions or help administer some proceedings. Not a care in the world. Right?
As you reach the halfway mark of a temporary position like a clerkship, though, so too do you reach the inevitable dilemma: How do I follow this up? Perhaps you secured a post-clerkship position at a firm where you served as a summer clerk, in which case the worry of follow-up melts away. Or does it? Does that firm still deserve you in all of your newly-minted judicially-minded glory?
Does it still fit your interests after you learned that you have an affinity for writing, say, opinions about age discrimination rather than the medical malpractice you worked on while in your summer gig (or vice versa)? If you’re with a non-profit, perhaps you run into the very real obstacle of recognizing that the place doesn’t suit your passions as well as you thought it would. These latter problems are different and specific to each new attorney, but the question of “what’s next?” can be nearly universal when a job is temporary and “next” is inevitable. And, if working as a clerk affords the lucky grad anything, it’s options.
This uncertainty can be fuel; a chance to explore the possibility, a space to develop and grow without permanent implications for small mistakes, an opportunity to change one’s mind, and an opportunity to make that mind up.
A clerkship or fellowship is much more than just a strong line item on a résumé; it’s an opportunity to start a legal career that fits who you are as a lawyer as opposed to what kind of lawyer you perceived you would be while you were still a law student.
A Window of Opportunity… to Network
By the end of law school, you ideally know your way around email outreach and friendly coffee meetings with attorneys who can provide a broader perspective in the field of your interest or even other fields. In an ideal world, appropriately ambitious networking should continue beyond law school and into the first several years of your career (if not forever).
From a perch in judicial chambers or with the legal office of a non-profit or other organization, a clerk or fellow can usually identify established attorneys with careers of interest, who are impressive advocates in the courtroom or are leaders in the legal community. A clerkship will probably give you more time and flexibility than a traditional attorney position to meet with and learn from these attorneys. The same lines of questioning and important points of interest should carry over to these meetings. You’ll want to learn: what they do, how they got there, what their approach to lawyering is, and which part of it appeals to you.
So long as this is done appropriately and ethically (hot tip: avoid getting coffee with an attorney appearing before your judge in hearing on an open case), a clerk is very well-poised to reach out and identify themselves, and people in the legal community will be remarkably willing to make time.
Not only will the attorney want to learn more about a clerk—a component of the notoriously mysterious entity that is a judicial chambers—they will want to see what the clerk reaching out to them is made of. Some will size up a brand new lawyer to determine whether they are worth considering for their own team, others will be helpful advisors on the legal market and more than happy to advise someone who has the credentials and chops to lock down a clerkship.
Networking, when done with honesty and integrity (rather than in a purely transactional manner), can be a clerk or fellow’s best friend. The flexibility afforded by these temporary positions creates a window of opportunity that should not be passed up.
Job Hunting: A Clerk’s Fate
Not all clerks enter the role with a certain plan to follow the end of the gig. Even some of those who do, may change their mind partway through for any number of reasons. The good news about a clerkship: you will be received by subsequent employers with relatively less suspicion of incompetence. The word “relatively” is important here, because most everyone has a different perspective on the significance of a clerkship gig.
Some see it as a clear indication that the ex-clerk (or ex-honors attorney, or ex-fellow) has the intelligence and work ethic to lock down a coveted job in an interesting atmosphere where the work experience can translate to light years of legal advancement. Some see it as an abject waste of time that has set back the candidate from a year or years of true legal experience and fictitiously cushioned the candidate’s entry into the brutal world of law.
Despite the particular perspective of the employer or interviewer, a clerkship carries a degree of respect and, hopefully, a strong reference for the searching clerk. This is not the worst starting point.
Some judicial clerkships lay out ethical requirements akin to the “no coffee with an advocate in a current case” restriction mentioned above.
For the most part, though, it will be a known quantity that a temporary employee is planning to move on to something else at the end of the stint. Because this is so inherent to the nature of the position, judges and supervisors of new attorneys in temporary gigs are typically very understanding when their clerk or fellow needs space to spread their wings. For that reason, a request for time off to travel to an interview, or a window of time off to meet with a prospective employer ought to be easily granted.
Clear communication on this front is key. Your judge will be curious about your post-clerkship plans from the very beginning, both for your sake and theirs (no judge wants to see a clerk struggle following their departure).
Supervising a young attorney can be taxing in its own right; it is no small feat trying to ensure a new attorney obtains sufficient and valuable work experience while still delivering good work product despite relatively little practice thus far. Add to that the supervisor’s job of having to support that attorney’s fledgling career and advocate for their charge -- no small feat.
For that reason, the exploring attorney should make lines of communication as direct and easy as possible for the supervisor. Telling a judge “I am hoping to land a job at Barney & Fife LLC” helps him or her prepare for when someone ultimately gives them a call to check the reference and ask about your fitness and maturity as an attorney.
It also helps prepare the judge for the day when you will be out for an interview as opposed to the typical thirty feet away, ready to respond to a shouted legal question (Oh, not all chambers work that way?).
If they are diligent, a temporary attorney can apply and apply again until successful. This means you can shoot high from early on and adjust as needed, or show persistence with the same office, agency, or firm by applying consistently to each new position. You can be patient, because that fuse is burning slowly, and you can be confident because (except for those few skeptics) clerks and honors attorneys or fellows are a good addition to most any team.
In the End, It’s All Aces
Reasonable time off and space to job hunt are easy to obtain with some candor and planning. Starting no later than halfway through the clerkship or fellowship is the best way to ensure you don’t end your temporary position at the edge of a career cliff.
Most of all, the opportunity to learn and grow as an attorney with low permanent stakes and plenty of concentrated experience makes a temporary position as a clerk, fellow, or honors attorney a worthwhile choice for anyone interested in developing as a generalist before evolving into a specialist. Make an effort to convince a judge you will be a worthwhile investment of time and a real asset to chambers. You will not regret it.