Law Clerk to Law Firm

It’s fall: time for kids to head back to school, leaves to fall from the trees, and law clerks to leave the courthouse and begin their practice.

At the end of my two-year clerkship, I was both anxious and eager to get started practicing law. In transitioning from law clerk to law firm, however, I had a realization: these were two completely different jobs. Sure, they were in the same field, but the move is akin to watching an expert surgeon for two years and then deciding to try it yourself. In hindsight, three pieces of advice would have eased the transition:

Think like an advocate, not a clerk

When I first arrived at my law firm “think like an advocate, not a clerk,” was a constant mantra. People were repeating it to former clerks, but I wasn’t quite sure what they meant. Gradually the phrase came to mean certain things like:

  • There is no “right” answer. When clerking, I had a strong desire to identify the “right” law. In practice, however, you get to synthesize the cases as an advocate and marshal the arguments for your position. Practicing lawyers are particularly wary that clerks don’t get this distinction.
  • Writing is more effective when you don’t put everything in a string cite. As a clerk, researching case law, string cites were a frequent friend. In practice, the reaction was immediate—take the quote out of the parentheses and put it in the prose.

Learn to work for multiple partners instead of one judge

I’ll badly paraphrase Andre the Giant from the Princess Bride: you use different moves when working with half a dozen people than when you only have to be worried about one. By the time your clerkship concludes, you’ve learned how to work well with one person. You know his or her research preferences, scheduling preferences, and working hours. This is no easy task. When you arrive at a law firm, however, you suddenly find yourself working for multiple individuals each with distinct writing preferences, scheduling requirements, and working hours.

I found organization was key. When Joe tells you that he prefers sans serif fonts and Sally mentions that she likes two spaces after a period, write it down. Because it’s completely embarrassing when Joe has to mention (very nicely but for a second time) that, he’s not sure if he mentioned it, but he prefers sans serif fonts. Personally, I prefer the post-it note on the screen approach (one sticky note for each person that you’re working for) but any method that will keep key preferences in the forefront of one’s mind will work.

Get exposure to what you don’t know

I clerked in federal district court. When I started practice I felt fairly comfortable when asked to do anything in federal district court. State court or any appellate court? Panic time. Your firm, however, may have some great resources, like the people who clerked in those courts. When it’s time for a first filing in an unfamiliar court, it may be worth a spin by their office just to get their take on the whole thing. Finally, there’s nothing like exposure to cure the fear of the unknown. Ask if you can watch someone else in state court or attend a discovery conference. The first few months of practice, when things are still ramping up, are the perfect time to watch and learn.

While the transition can be bumpy, there will also be Rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer moments when a former law clerk is just what everyone needs. It’s always a fun time when you know a judge’s preference or can pass on that the clerk’s office prefers exhibits labeled by a separate cover sheet. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons you clerked to begin with?

(photo: A pretty african american woman at college from Shutterstock)

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