Career Path Options for a Law Clerk

The average value of the Bachelor degree needed to become a Law clerks is $654,774.00.

A law clerk assists judges or lawyers by researching or preparing legal documents. They are not the same as paralegals though they may perform similar duties in some employment settings.

Points of interest

  • Law clerks generally have a bachelor’s degree, most often in law.
  • The projected employment change for the years 2008-2018 is faster than the average.
  • In 2009 there were approximately 38,000 law clerks employed in various settings

Nature of the Work

There are two major settings for law clerks to seek employment; a clerkship with a judge or in a law firm or corporate legal department. Duties are similar in both settings, but both settings have their particular duties as well. In general, law clerks conduct research and prepare legal documents.

Law Clerks in Law Firms and Corporate Legal Departments:

In law offices and corporate legal departments, the duties of law clerks usually include researching and studying legal documents such as judicial opinions, statutes and other legal codes, and legal articles to investigate the facts and law of specific cases to help determine causes of action and to prepare for current cases. The research is used to prepare drafts of arguments or briefs, appeals, personal documents such as contracts and wills, for attorneys to use or approve.

They may review and file petitions, pleadings and other documents related to the court case. Law clerks prepare affidavits of documents and maintain files and case correspondence on given court cases as well as serve copies of pleas to opposing counsels. In some settings, law clerks schedule meetings between lawyers and other legal professionals. Law clerks communicate and arbitrate disputes, deliver subpoenas to witnesses and parties to actions, and catalog, store and maintain legal volumes.

Judicial Law Clerk

A judicial law clerk has a different role. These clerks are usually recent graduates of law school and often have great influence in the judge’s decision making which is directly correlated to the formation of case law. Federal judges, particularly at the appellate level, often require their law clerks to have experience with moot court or law review in school. These positions are considered the most prestigious of all law clerk positions and are highly competitive. Law clerk judicial positions at the state level do not usually require the same level of credentials.

Some judges seek law clerks who share their ideological orientation. This occurs more often at the state supreme courts and United States Supreme Court levels. Law clerks who have completed a judicial clerkship are often highly marketable to elite law firms. Some law clerks choose to stay in the employ of the judge on a permanent basis.

Law Clerk Career

One of the most highly coveted positions for law clerks is a clerkship with a federal judge. Federal judges may have 50-100 applicants for one position. Law clerks who eventually get hired are usually at the top of their graduating law class and most were team members of the moot court or law review or other journal of their law school. Many federal judges have more than one law clerk. Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court are allowed four clerks while the Chief Justices are allowed five clerks. Law clerks generally serve one to two year terms, though some federal judges hire one permanent law clerk. A clerkship with a United States Supreme Court Justice is the most prestigious clerkship.

A clerkship with a federal court judge at trial level is another position actively pursued by many law clerks. Some district courts are more popular due to their location, such as The District of Columbia and the U.S. District Courts in California. Federal clerkships also include magistrate judges and Special Trial judges. Generally, federal clerkship positions are regulated by the National Federal Judges Law Clerk Hiring Plan and candidates must apply in their third year of law school for the following year. The plan sets the dates for the receipt of applications, contact, interview and hire of the law clerks. Practicing attorneys are allowed to apply earlier and the Supreme Court does not follow the plan’s timetable.

The hiring process tends to be quick. It is not uncommon for a federal judge to make a decision at the conclusion of the initial interview and require an immediate answer from the candidate. Most federal judges complete the hiring of their clerks before the end of October.

Trial Court Law Clerks

Law clerks for trial court judges are directly involved with the process of litigation. They manage exhibits the lawyers submit into evidence, assist the judge in the proceedings of the courtroom and interact with litigants, court personnel, staff of the chambers, and the public. Law clerks at this level often assist the judge with discovery disputes and settlement conferences. They review briefs submitted by both parties, perform legal research and verify cited legal authority. They often draft legal documents such as memoranda, orders and trial briefs.

Appellate Law Clerks

Law clerks in the appellate courts research and analyze legal issues in the criminal and civil appeals. Prior to oral arguments, these law clerks educate the legal staff and the judge on the legal issues and facts pertaining to the case. They assist at the actual judicial proceedings. The appellate law clerk researches and writes opinions, orders, bench memoranda, and other legal documents. They may be required to maintain the judge’s chambers library and supervise the chambers staff.

Work environment

Law clerks are in a professional environment and are expected to dress and behave accordingly. Law clerks work in law firms, government offices and corporate legal departments. Law clerks working in corporate firms or government offices usually work 40 hour weeks. Law clerks working in private law firms are often required to work extend hours on a regular basis. Deadlines and high expectations can create high levels of stress.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

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Most law clerks in judicial positions are recent graduates of law school. Many judges require their clerks to have experience as a member of the schools’ moot court or law review teams.

Law school entry is highly competitive. A significant determining factor is the applicant’s score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Most schools advise taking the test during the junior year of undergraduate school to ensure time for retaking the test if necessary. Undergraduate courses should include quantitative courses such as business, math, economics and finance. A high grade point average (GPA) is another critical factor in law school admission. Most law schools also require an admission essay, letters of recommendation, and a resume. It is not necessary to obtain a pre-law degree for admission to law school. In fact, a high GPA in another field is more favorable to most law schools than a lower GPA in pre-law.

The first year of law school requires core courses completed that include civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, legal writing, criminal law, property law, torts, and professional ethics and responsibility. During the second and third years of law school, students generally finish any core classes they have remaining in addition to elective courses. Specialized courses are taken at this time and students gain experience by participating in mock court proceedings, working in law firms, participating in mock trials, participating in law clinics, and researching and writing for their schools’ law journals.

Other qualifications

Law clerks should have excellent writing and communication skills. They should have good oral comprehension and inductive reasoning skills. They should possess good deductive reasoning, problem sensitivity, and information ordering abilities. Law clerks should have strong skills in reading and writing comprehension, decision making and judgment, critical thinking and time management. Law clerks need to be active learners and active listeners.

Advancement Opportunities

Law clerks with significant experience in the legal field have several opportunities for advancement with promotions to senior clerk or supervisor of the clerical team. Federal judiciary law clerks have the potential to advance to higher levels of clerkships with appellate court judges and United States Supreme Court Justices. Some judicial law clerks may be offered permanent positions with their judges. Some law firms offer permanent positions to law clerks. Some firms may offer a junior associate position to a proven law clerk.

Employment

In May 2009, the number of employed law clerks was about 38,000 nationally. Law clerks work in a variety of settings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 the highest concentration of law clerks held jobs in the general legal services industry, followed by local government, state government, management of companies and enterprises and the Federal Executive Branch.

States with the highest concentration of workers in this occupation were Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Maryland and Utah. The highest concentrations of law clerks in metropolitan areas were Dover, DE with 2.145 per thousand workers, Wilmington, DE-MD-NJ Metropolitan Division with 1.245 per thousand workers, Athens-Clarke County, GA with 1.236 per thousand workers, Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA with .987 per thousand workers, and Baltimore-Towson, MD with .831 per thousand workers.

Job Outlook

Even though the projected growth is faster than the national average for all occupations, the field of law clerks is expected to continue to be highly competitive, especially in the venue of judicial clerkships.

Employment Change

Though a clerkship with a U.S. Supreme Court Justice is the most prestigious position for a law clerk, there are only 36 positions available each year. In recent years, a clerkship with a federal judge of the federal court of appeals has become a prerequisite to a clerkship with a Supreme Court judge. However, these positions too, are difficult to secure.

Court of appeals judges are often considered “feeder judges” as they send their clerks on to the Supreme Court. This results in increasing polarization of the court as judges tend to hire clerks who reflect their ideological orientations.

The economic crisis has changed the face of the legal job market. More private law firms and corporate legal departments are laying off attorneys and hiring law clerks. This will positively impact law clerks in the private law firm and corporate venues; however, it may have a negative impact on judicial positions especially at the federal level. There is a continuing trend for judges to seek out experienced attorneys for law clerk positions.

Job Prospects

Law clerks who have worked with a federal judge are often sought out by large firms as they are expected to have excellent skills in legal research and writing as well as strong command of Federal Rules of Criminal and Civil Procedures. Firms are particularly favorable to clerks who had a clerkship with a federal judge before whom the law firm generally appears. Law firms often offer large signing bonuses to these individuals, however, as the economic crisis continues, law firms are becoming less inclined to continue this practice.

Recent hiring trends suggest that private law firms are hiring law clerks to do some of the work typically assigned to junior lawyers. This helps them to keep the operational costs down. Thus, the demand for law clerks is going to be increasing for a few years. Judicial law clerk positions are expected to increase in competitiveness as attorneys who have been laid off in the private and corporate sectors seek positions in the judicial system.

Although the growth of the occupation is estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow by at least 14 percent, the job prospects are not nearly as favorable. Approximately 40,000 graduates with law degrees flooded the job market in May 2010. While enrollment is law schools has remained steady, the economic downturn has forced law firms, judges, governments and other employers to cut hiring, some by 30 percent or more from the previous year.

Because of the early application process, the market works on a year delay for graduates. Graduates from 2009 will begin work in 2010; graduates hired in 2010 will not start until 2011. When the economy does begin to pick up, companies will have to absorb their backlog of graduate hires before offering new positions.

In 2010, 16 summer internship positions on average were available at law firms; almost half of the positions available in 2009. In 2009, employers offered full-time jobs to 69 percent of the summer interns. In the previous five years employers offered full-time jobs to almost 90 percent of their summer interns. During recessions, there is less demand for certain legal services such as drafting wills and planning estates. Corporations are less inclined to initiate some types of litigations when they have falling profits. This could adversely affect law clerks as well. However, at the same, individuals and corporations are at a higher risk to require legal assistance for such things as foreclosures or bankruptcies. Law clerks can perform many legal services as lawyers, but at a lower cost; therefore, overall they tend to fare slightly better during economic downturns.

Projections

The projected growth of this occupation is estimated at 14-19 percent which is higher than the average for all occupations.

Earnings and Wages

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2209, the national annual mean wage for law clerks was $41,960, a mean hourly wage of $20.17. The median hourly wage for law clerks was $18.46 making the annual median wage $38,390. The lower ten percentile averaged $10.79 hourly wage and $22,450 annual wage. The 25 percentile averaged $13.88 hourly wage and $28,870 annual wage. The 75 percentile averaged $24.42 hourly wage and $50,790 annual wage. The 90 percentile averaged $32.06 hourly wage and $66,690 annual wage.

The top paying industries for law clerks was the Federal Executive Branch with an annual mean wage of $55,330, business, professional, labor, political and similar organizations with an annual mean wage of $47,890, management of companies and enterprises with an annual mean wage of $47,530, depository credit intermediation with an annual mean wage of $47,150 and state governments with an annual mean wage of $46,580.

The top paying states for law clerks was District of Columbia with an annual mean wage of $65,570, Connecticut with an annual mean wage of $60,600, Nevada with an annual mean wage of $58,870, North Carolina with an annual mean wage of $56,520 and Oregon with an annual mean wage of $54,930.

The top paying metropolitan areas for this occupation are Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT with an annual mean wage of $67,060, Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC with an annual mean wage of $66,810, Raleigh-Cary, NC with an annual mean wage of $66,680, Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, OR-WA with an annual mean wage of $63,850 and Olympia, WA with an annual mean wage of $61,330.

There is a significant difference in pay levels between law clerks in state judicial clerkships versus federal judicial clerkships. Inexperienced state clerks earn an average annual salary of approximately $47,000. Federal judicial term law clerks earn an average annual salary of about $71,000 with permanent clerks earning about $105,000 annually.

Some law clerks are offered signing bonuses from private law firms. Private law firms may also compensate law clerks for extra hours worked. Permanent judicial law clerks and law clerks in other venues often receive paid holidays and vacation time.

Related Occupations

Other occupations with similar duties and training include:

  • Licensing Examiners and Inspectors
  • Paralegals and Legal Assistants
  • Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers
  • Court Clerks
  • Municipal Clerks
  • Legal Secretaries

Sources of Additional Information

For further information regarding a law clerk career:National Association for Law Placement is the association for legal career professionals and may be contacted at: 1025 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 1110, Washington, DC 20036-5413, Phone: (202) 835-1001, Fax: (202) 835-1112

For further information regarding positions as a judicial law clerk individuals can access:

OSCAR, the central online resource for federal law clerk and appellate court staff attorney hiring
Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan

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