Hiring a Law Clerk? Ask Yourself These Questions First


Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

If you are busy enough to consider hiring a law clerk, you need to see beyond the project that you would like to hand off and to understand that supervision takes time and costs money.  If you believe that “if you want something done right, do it yourself,” then hiring a law clerk may not be your best bet. You will need to plan to take the time to make this hire work for both of you.

Are you prepared for:

  1. Setting standards and providing tools.

    Provide your clerk with your standards. Don’t expect that he will intuit that you worship Strunk & White, the most current Blue Book, and the Harvard Comma. Integrating your clerk’s lightning-fast technical skills into your time-and-billing system, and into your research methods and services requires explanation that will take time and patience.  You are long past the learning curve, and your clerk is playing catch-up. Remember, too, that you cannot ask your student to use access to his academic electronic research accounts for your practice.

  2. Carving out useful and, when possible, interesting work.

    Explain the project and how it fits into the solution for your client’s problem.  Know that a smart law clerk will have questions, and budget for the time. If you believe that a task will be a crashing bore, your clerk is more likely to take ownership if you put it into context.  Acknowledge the tedium, show why the project is important, and how it will be useful.

  3. Acknowledging and reviewing the document and providing “feedback.”

    Be clear about how and when you will review projects so that your inbox doesn’t become the Bermuda Triangle of Clerk Work.

    During nearly two decades of work as a headhunter and in law school career services, I learned that law clerks’ primary complaint about substantive work was that they received either lousy feedback or no feedback whatsoever.  Often this was a clash of communication and perceptions when students who looked for formal sit-down meetings with busy lawyers didn’t understand that “atta-boy” in the hallway was “feedback,” or  that there was “no news” because even good lawyers are uncomfortable delivering criticism.

  4. Giving useful, sometimes harsh constructive criticism.

    Telepathy is not a tool of supervision. Just as you set your clients’ expectations for a less-than-perfect outcomes, tell your clerk that you will hold him to the standards that you have set out.

    While every law student’s work should have perfect spelling and impeccable grammar, legal research and nuanced analysis in unfamiliar territory may not be the first work product that you see. Legal Writing is the most difficult, most important, and least-revered law school subject, and it is a skill set that takes a very long time to learn. If you want a legal research project created with careful legal analysis, as opposed to “Google-cut-and-paste-find-and-replace,” you may have to ask for it, and demonstrate how it should be done.

    Unacknowledged problems don’t solve themselves. If you were in a rush and had to revise the document for timely filing, take the time to do an honest and clear critique.

  5. Firing a clerk whose work is not up to your standards.

    This is hard, but you may have to do it.  This is easier if you can point to documented work product problems which were uncorrected after your reviews.

    Because Legal Writing is the most difficult subject to teach, the director of your student’s legal writing program should be very interested in your real-world constructive critique.


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  • These are all good things to consider when deciding whether or not to hire a clerk. In addition to these considerations, attorneys should pay attention to what tasks they want to delegate and for how long they will need to delegate certain tasks. Instead of hiring someone, paying them as an employee, and managing that employee, it may be a good idea to consider other options, such as contract attorneys, virtual assistants/paralegals or legal process outsourcers who already have experience in the areas of law your practice.

  • Those are all very important issues in considering whether to hire a clerk. Another issue is if you want to hire the person as a clerk with the intention of hiring them as an employee if they work out. You get to see the person’s work ethic and abilities.

  • Yes, these are great tips, and I agree with Kevin that good delegation skills are key to any successful working relationship. Make sure that both the delegator and delegatee are clear about deadlines, the task description, the necessary resources, who should be kept in the loop, the expected level of quality, and the timeline to complete the task.