The First Job: A Look into Entry Level Positions in the Legal Profession

The First Job: A Look into Entry Level Positions in the Legal Profession
Assembled and edited by Bradley Richardson, Co-editor and chief

In each edition of The Lounge, a different "First Job" will be explored.  The Lounge will ask a series of questions to lawyers in either their first job or a transitional job, and then we will print their responses. The goal is to provide Law Student Division members with a little more insight into the typical entry level positions. In this first edition, The Lounge will tackle the Judicial Clerkship.  Enjoy!

The Clerkship

I stood in front of the door marked, "Judge's Chambers."  I looked down at my shoes, noticing a small scuff mark, cursed, and said, "Well, nothing I can do about that."  Straightening my tie one last time, I buttoned the top button of my "interview suit" and walked into an interview for a job that was still a mystery to me – a clerkship.

That's right, a clerkship.  The "post-doc" of the legal profession.  The coveted spot believed to immediately propel your career into your dream job (sarcasm added).  However, when you ask law students what exactly a law clerk does, there seems to be some mystery to the position.  Everyone knows that you research and write.  Hopefully, you get to draft opinions, orders, and play a small part in the decision-making of the judiciary.  But being a law clerk is so much more.  Law clerks often play the role of liaison, administrative assistant, and, in my case, even as a bailiff for jury trials.  Like my other fellow law clerks, I had no idea that much of my time would not be spent researching and writing.  Rather, it was a fun and exciting experience where your legal and professional skills are tested to their highest levels.

Regardless, I wish I knew more about the position before I interviewed.  Additionally, I wish I knew how many clerkships are out there and how they differ.  There are clerkships for state trial courts, administrative courts, appellate courts, Article I courts, Article IV courts (yep, those exist!), to name a few.  For this reason, The Lounge decided to ask current and recent law clerks from multiple jurisdictions three simple questions:

  1. Where do I work?
  2. What are my duties?
  3. What would I tell the next incoming law clerk?

160px-Seal_of_the_U_S__District_Court_for_the_District_of_Puerto_Rico.gifUnited States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico

I clerk for the Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpi, United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. I primarily research for and draft opinions on dispositive motions and assist in the management of the civil docket. I also assist in the management of civil trials, which involve drafting motions in limine opinions, as well as drafting jury instructions and jury verdict forms.

A law clerk should keep an open mind about every single case and always thoroughly research each issue. Make sure that you can be a team player, as working in a judge's chambers is a collab orative effort and your co-clerks are incredibly valuable resources. I also recommend keeping yourself updated on the ever-changing legal world by frequently checking websites such as SCOTUSblog and subscribing to your circuit's library circulations. There are too many great resources out there to simply rely on legal research through Westlaw or Lexis.

Andrew Stark clerks for the Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpi, United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. He graduated from Suffolk University Law School in 2013.

US-CourtOfAppeals-5thCircuit-Seal.pngUnited States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

I clerk for the Honorable James E. Graves Jr., Circuit Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  My primary duties are to conduct legal research, prepare bench memos, and assist with the drafting of orders and opinions.

I think it's important for law clerks to remember that their main role is to assist the Judge. A clerk's job is not simply to form a conclusion about a legal issue. A clerk's job is to provide his or her Judge with the information that the Judge needs to form a conclusion about a legal issue. That means the most important aspect of a clerk's job is communicating and distilling the issues in a case in a manner that assists the Judge in understanding them fully so that he or she may reach an informed decision.

Benjamin Welikson clerks for the Hon. James E. Graves, Jr., Circuit Judge For the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He graduated from George Washington University Law School in 2010.

StateTrialCourt.gifState Trial Court

I clerked for the Honorable Thomas E. Ross, at the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County, MD, a trial court of general jurisdiction. The docket generally consisted of criminal cases, divorce and custody disputes, foreclosure, and various civil cases.  The Court also serves as the appellate review for administrative courts, as well as the lower District Courts, which hear small claims and misdemeanors. 

My duties greatly varied.  I drafted plenty of opinions and orders. Judge Ross also expected me to review and brief without any supervision. In court, I handled evidence, assisted attorneys and litigants with their needs, and provided quick research when necessary. I also helped the Family Law Master, who alleviated a lot of Judge Ross's domestic case load. My other duties included assisting senior judges who sat for settlement conferences, serving as a liaison between the judge and the public, assisting the bailiff for jury trials, ensuring defendants signed their probation orders, trouble shot pre-hearing procedural issues, and worked with courthouse staff and Sheriff's Deputies.

The next incoming law clerk should be keenly aware of what is going on in the courtroom and anticipate issues associated with a trial. This not only includes legal issues like evidence, but could also be scheduling conflicts with the docket, witness intimidation (which happens more than you think!), and identifying security issues with litigants and alerting law enforcement assigned to the court. Additionally, lawyers and litigants believe you have the judge's ear and, unfortunately, they push the envelope with ex parte communications. Therefore, don't be afraid to remind them of your jurisdiction's rule about ex parte communications, which I had taped to the wall above my phone. However, invite lawyers to talk to you. Learn from their expertise and engage them in conversation. You should also embrace the administrative role you play and learn as much about court administration as possible, such as budgeting and case management goals.  Finally, a trial level clerkship is your chance to learn procedure as well as what NOT to do in court.  If you do all of these things, your clerkship will be both a learning experience and a blast.

Bradley Richardson is in his second clerkship in the chambers of the Hon. Charles E. Erdmann, United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. He graduated from the University of South Dakota School of Law in May 2013.     

SouthDakotaStateSeal.pngState Supreme Court

I clerked for Chief Justice David Gilbertson of the South Dakota Supreme Court. I assisted the Court in reviewing briefs, preparing for oral arguments, researching issues, and drafting and editing written opinions.

During a clerkship, you will have a unique opportunity to observe and reflect upon what effective (and ineffective) attorneys write, say, and do. That is why I kept a running "Do" and "Don't Do" lists for myself as a future attorney. My list was in my top desk drawer and I added to it often. A law clerk should also get to know the permanent staff working around you. The judicial system is filled with great people who truly care about serving the public. Get to know as many of them as you can.  Learn from them.  Thank them for what they do. 

Anthony Franken received his J.D. from the University of South Dakota School of Law in 2013. Following his clerkship, he joined the law firm of May, Adam, Gerdes & Thompson, LLP in Pierre, SD.

USCourtofAppealsfortheArmedForces.jpgUnited States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces

I clerk for a judge who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.  It is an Article I court of mostly discretionary review, and it hears appeals from military members who have been tried and sentenced by a court-martial.  These are exclusively criminal cases prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the legal issues involved are mainly constitutional law, criminal law, and military law.  In our chambers, the clerks' duties are two-fold.  First, we analyze petitions of convicted servicemembers seeking review of their convictions for the merit of the legal issues asserted, and we make a recommendation to the judge whether the court should grant or deny review.  Second, for granted cases, we prepare bench memos before oral argument, and either help research and write the opinion or help review opinions drafted by other judges. 

New clerks encountering a new area of law should first to seek guidance from senior clerks who can point your research in the right direction.  Ask for previous examples so you can match the style and content of whatever type of document you are asked to draft.  Read everything that your judge has written so you can begin to match his style in your writing.  Broader job advice applies to clerkships too: Pay attention to what is important to your manager(s) and find out what benchmarks will be the basis for your assessment; then, focus your efforts on those priorities.  Treat all court employees with respect.  And cultivate friendships with the other clerks - a collegial working environment makes a huge difference in job satisfaction.

Lindsay Windsor graduated in 2013 from Georgetown Law.  She currently clerks for the Hon. Scott Stucky, United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, Washington, D.C.

UnitedStatesTaxCourtSeal.pngUnited States Tax Court

I am a law clerk for the Honorable David Gustafson of the United States Tax Court.  The Tax Court is the only pre-payment forum for taxpayers who wish to challenge formal tax assessments made by the Internal Revenue Service.  In other words, the Tax Court is the only venue where taxpayers do not have to first pay the disputed tax before filing suit.  Taxpayers may also bring an action in the United States District Court, or the United States Court of Federal Claims, however these venues require that the taxpayer first pay the disputed tax and then the taxpayer may file a lawsuit to recover the contested amount.  The Tax Court's primary jurisdiction is to redetermine tax deficiencies found by the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.  This jurisdiction includes individual and corporate taxpayer deficiencies that can arise in a number of contexts.  For instance, the deficiency could be the result of a taxpayer's unreported income, challenged deductions, transfer pricing disputes, or partnership income and allocation disputes.

My primary responsibilities include creating first drafts of legal opinions and orders, conducting legal research, and discussing and analyzing tax issues with Judge Gustafson.  Judge Gustafson's law clerks are also the primary contact between chambers and the Tax Court Reporters Office, which conforms all Tax Court opinions for style and consistency.  Periodically, I join Judge Gustafson for pretrial conference calls where Judge Gustafson will inform the parties of his expectations for the upcoming trial and the parties are given an opportunity to raise any remaining pretrial issues.  I also read newly issued Tax Court opinions to stay abreast of new issues and developments in tax law. 

Enjoy and immerse yourself in the clerkship experience.  Working with and learning from a judge can be one of the most invaluable experiences of your career.  Judge Gustafson has a wealth of knowledge and is always eager to discuss tax law issues.  Judge Gustafson's door is always open and he encourages an open dialogue and discussion of our cases.  Additionally, clerking for the Tax Court provides a unique opportunity to work closely with a judge who is an expert on the Internal Revenue Code.  In my opinion, there are few places better suited for a young tax attorney to gain this type of on-the-job substantive legal training. 

Finally, in addition to gaining substantive knowledge, clerking provides an important opportunity for young lawyers to begin to develop their own lawyering style and demeanor.  I believe that young attorneys emulate the characteristics and qualities of a judge or the senior attorneys with whom they work.  Although they may not seem as important as substantive knowledge, these "soft" qualities influence the type of lawyer you will become and how you will interact with opposing counsel, junior attorneys, and staff.  I encourage you to observe your judge's style and demeanor and evaluate whether those are qualities and characteristics that you want to adopt.  I have had the good fortune to serve as a law clerk for two wonderful judges wjp both share many characteristics that made them successful attorneys, and now, highly regarded jurists.  They are all thoughtful, humble, patient, and kind individuals.  They have influenced me in many positive ways and I know that my own demeanor and style is adopted from their positive examples.  In short, I would encourage you to take advantage of the substantive and non-substantive opportunities that a clerkship offers.  It is an invaluable experience that will enrich your career for years to come. 

Andrew G. Mirisis currently clerks for the Honorable David Gustafson of the United States Tax Court.  He graduated with a J.D. from Widener University School of Law in 2009 and an LL.M. in Taxation from Georgetown University Law Center in 2011.  Prior to clerking for Judge Gustafson, he clerked for the Honorable Kevin Gross of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.  In 2012, he joined the corporate restructuring practice of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.  In 2014, he was offered an opportunity to clerk at the United States Tax Court and decided to fulfill one of his goals since finishing his LL.M. and fully transition to a tax practice.

Bankruptcy.gifUnited States Bankruptcy Court

I am a term clerk for the Honorable Craig A. Gargotta in the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division. My duties include what you would think of as "traditional law clerk" functions such as drafting opinions, conducting research, and preparing oral rulings.  Additionally, because bankruptcy is a heavy motions practice, I review pleadings daily for compliance with the Bankruptcy Code, Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Rules.  My duties also include attending or listening in on hearings and providing legal analysis to the Judge either while he is still on the bench or in chambers, once he has taken the matter under advisement.

I entered bankruptcy practice after interning for Bankruptcy Judge Gloria M. Burns during my 1L summer and then in the bankruptcy department for McCabe, Weisberg & Conway, P.C. during my 2L and 3L years.  Bankruptcy practice attracted me because it is a code-based federal practice dealing with diverse parties - such as creditors, trustees, debtors and equity - holders, to name a few - and their competing interests.

Law clerks should not be afraid to ask questions.  Bankruptcy practice seems to speak a different language at times.  Unless you've had previous bankruptcy experience, ask questions in order to understand what the underlying issue really is, and then you can more efficiently utilize your excellent legal research and writing skills.

Megan N. Young serves as law clerk for the Honorable Craig A. Gargotta, Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division. She received her J.D. from Drexel University School of Law


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