How to Make Your Law Clerkships Work For Your Job Search

Coming of Age In A New Economy

Recently, I had a rather valuable discussion with an attorney from a top flight firm. He happens to have extensive experience as lead counsel in the airline industry for environmental regulatory compliance.  So it’s fair to say he also has a decent amount of experience hiring associates.  We started talking about what he looks for in new associates fresh out of law school.

He told me that historically the trend had been that the best students got the best jobs. However he indicated that now more and more firms are looking at what potential job candidates do outside of the classroom… not just their in-class performance.

Clerkships, internships, and externships (for the sake of clarity we’ll refer to all three as clerkships) are all tremendous opportunities for law school students to gain an edge in the race for employment. It is one thing to learn Civil Procedure in a classroom but seeing it actually play out in court is another experience altogether.

Clerkships also provide law students with a glimpse of what practice will really be like and helps them to prepare for the rigors of the legal profession in a way no amount of classroom experience ever could.

Hands-on legal experience is something that every law school student should have by the time they graduate.

Employers are beginning to pay more and more attention to a potential hire’s ability to quickly transition from the classroom setting to the real world. A resume that reflects experience in live settings will be an invaluable asset.  It gives tangible proof to an employer why you are better suited for the position then someone who just has the grades and why you’ll be ready to hit the ground running.

The importance of actual experience while still in law school cannot be overstated.  So let’s turn to what law school students should be looking for in clerkship positions.

First, not all clerkships are created equally – some supervisors will be more willing than others to work with and teach their interns. When researching possible clerkships try to find one with relatively few interns. Then get a feel for the reputation of your supervisor. Is he or she truly a mentor to budding attorneys or  simply someone looking for warm bodies to draft memos for free.

Clerkships are also a great way to figure out what areas of law you may want to gravitate toward upon graduation. If you are uncertain about the particular area of law then try a general practice firm or try a clerkship with a local trial court. There you will see a wide range of cases and begin to get a feel for what type of law you would enjoy.  Conversely,  you may very well discover the type of law you know you have absolutely no interest in.

After you start narrowing down what you think you want to do as a lawyer, start seeking out positions with firms that specialize in that area of law. Firms are typically more willing to take on clerks and interns who want to specialize in whatever the firm’s specialty is as opposed to the random law student who is applying simply because they need something to pad their resume. Such positions can be highly competitive; you will need every advantage you can get in order to land a position in today’s large applicant pool.

Once you find yourself in a clerkship position take full advantage of it. Many times these positions are unpaid, but diligence as an unpaid clerk could translate into a salary as an associate after graduation. Regardless of how big or small the task that is placed before you, always be willing to take on the challenge.

It’s alright to ask questions. You will not be expected to know everything about writing a trial brief for a products liability case the second you walk through the door. If you have a supervisor that truly wants to teach up and coming lawyers then they will be glad to help you learn the ropes. Be careful not to use your supervisor as a crutch though. You have been selected because the attorney has confidence in your abilities as a law student and potential attorney. Be sure to exhaust all avenues of research before going to your supervisor with a question about the problem you’ve been assigned. You will be a much better attorney in the long run for figuring it out yourself rather than immediately running to get the answers the minute you get stuck.

Most importantly keep a good attitude. There will be days you’ll want to zone out or slack off and not put as much work into the memo you’re drafting on the differences between a partnership and a corporation.

Everything you do as a clerk should be considered a professional piece of work, you never know who you will meet or just what your supervisor might see that will lead them to form an opinion of you one way or another.

  • Avoid being the first to leave at closing time every day
  • Stay on top of your assignments
  • Meet your deadlines
  • Above all avoid excuses.

There will be times you’ll mess up on the job.  When that time comes, be accountable, take responsibility, and be sure to learn from your mistake so you don’t  repeat it.  On more than one occasion I’ve heard attorneys say that accountability is one of the top traits that they look for in potential employees.

Clerkships can be a powerful asset for law school students. They can learn valuable information and tricks of the trade before they ever graduate. However, as with anything else, you have to take the time and put the effort into it to reap the maximum reward of such an experience. You get what you give.

If you are fortunate enough to land a clerkship make the most of it. Even if that attorney doesn’t have a job to offer you odds are he can find someone who does providing you’ve done a great job, made a strong impression and showed the lawyer you’ll go the extra mile.

And the added bonus – if you still don’t land a job as an attorney, you are that much closer to being a successful solo!

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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