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Mid-Career Clerkships: Three Things to Know

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

With the death of the Law Clerk Hiring Plan, federal judges are able to take on whomever they wish when it comes to law clerks. For many judges, that won't include the traditional fresh-out-law-school clerks; instead, judges are opting for clerks who have a few years of practice under their belts.

For a mid-career lawyer, or even one with just a few years' experience, is the prestige of a law clerk position worth the income you'll be sacrificing?

1. Don't get a clerkship if you're already employed

If you're fairly content with your job as a lawyer, you probably want to keep it. The law job market still hasn't recovered, which means that when your clerkship is over in a year or two, you're going to be out of a job. Sure, the fact that you have a clerkship under your belt will make you more marketable -- but that's worth something only if firms are hiring.

On the other hand, if you're a refugee from a defunct firm or the victim of downsizing, applying for a clerkship is a no-brainer.

2. Consider the staff attorney/career clerk route

Because judicial clerkships last only a year or two, you know that you'll be looking for a new job shortly after you start your clerkship. If working in the judiciary is something you're into, you may want to consider a staff attorney job rather than a clerkship.

Staff attorneys are career lawyers who work in a judge's chambers. They're not so common in the federal system, much more so in state court systems, these people are also called "career clerks."

3. Look for federal trial courts

The circuit courts may have more appeal (get it?), but according to one federal district judge, there may be more opportunities for experienced lawyers at the trial level, where judges have to make quick decisions. "I knew that I wanted law clerks who could help me accomplish that task with a minimum of hand holding and training. I needed seasoned lawyers to rely upon. I did not and do not have time to deal with the young and the dumb (as I was some 40 plus years ago)," writes Judge Richard George Kopf of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska.

Plus, you may also wish to consider keeping your eye out for new judges. Those who are fairly new to the bench will want to hire clerks who don't need a whole lot of training in learning how to be a lawyer, given the new judge is an experienced lawyer just learning how to be a judge.

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