The Hidden Costs of a Law Clerk

Guest post by Damon Chetson.

Law clerks can be relatively low-cost labor, but don’t let the promise of cheap labor blind you to the true costs of an intern. The burden a law clerk will place on you and your staff members, as well as ethical and practice considerations, should be carefully weighed before you decide to bring one into your practice.

1. Salary is just one employment cost.

In the first few months of employment, salary—whether for a summer associate, paralegal, or new attorney—is often the least-expensive cost to a law firm.

The burden of inculcating any new staff member, including a law clerk, into your office culture and your firm’s workflow can quickly outstrip the benefits any work they produce upon hire.

Such costs are even more pronounced if you decide to bring a law student into your office who has never had any professional experience. You may find yourself mentoring an intern in the first few weeks on proper business etiquette, which will be of great benefit to them, but less valuable to you.

And because legal internships are not permanent, your interns climb up the learning curve won’t benefit your firm in the long term. You’ll begin the process anew with a new intern the next semester or summer.

2. Your obligation to your intern.

Consider also the obligation you have to the law clerk. In exchange for a modest stipend (or nothing at all), I believe you have violated a usually unspoken promise to the intern if you put the intern to work filing, copying, and fetching coffee.

Certainly an internship will involve menial tasks. But, in exchange for giving up their time and labor, you should expect to give the law clerk a few substantive projects, such as researching a legal issue, brief writing, or, shadowing in court.

Assigning these more challenging tasks, and supervising the work, will surely slow you down.

3. Where and how will your law clerk work?

Think about where you will physically put the law clerk, and how they will be equipped. Most law students have laptops. But you may need the intern to have access to your internal database, proprietary software, or email system.

Will you need to buy a computer to enable your intern to work over the summer? Is there space in your office for him or her to work? A phone? How will they print?

Many of the same costs of hiring an employee apply when bringing on law clerk. Thinking through these issues before you send out a request for internship applications to your local law school can help save time, money, and headaches down the road.

4. Ethical requirements and your law clerk.

Ethical considerations can also affect a decision to bring on a law clerk.

Many states allow law students to practice if supervised by a licensed attorney. In North Carolina, where I practice, this third-year practice rule requires the licensed attorney to be personally present any time a law student makes a court appearance. Sending a law student to court even to perform mundane tasks, such as motions to continue, on his own may land you in hot water with judges or the bar.

In addition, you should have talk at the start of the internship with your student about her obligations to maintain client confidentiality, and to any confidentiality requirements you may wish to impose about internal processes or practices that you don’t want disclosed to other firms or attorneys.

5. Planning can help you get the most out of your intern.

A little planning can help you decide whether having a summer law clerk makes sense in your practice. I recommend taking time to personally interview interns, if only just over the phone. Don’t hire on the basis of a resume alone.

Who knows? Maybe the intern you hire will become a future associate.

Even when the cost of a law clerk may outstrip the benefit, you may still decide to bring on an intern, believing that part of your role as a lawyer is to help a new generation learn how to practice law.

Raleigh criminal lawyer Damon Chetson represents people charged with serious felonies, misdemeanors, and Driving While Impaired offenses in the state courts of North Carolina and the federal courts of the Eastern District of North Carolina. He also practices bankruptcy law, foreclosure law, and debtor defense law.

(photo: Shutterstock)


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  • Excellent post!

    Your local law school career services office is a great resource for anyone considering hiring a law clerk.

    Chat with the director or a staff member about what to include in a useful job description as opposed to a generic job posting. The distinction is that you must take time to decide what you really want in an intern and then you must ask for it in detail. List a salary, please. Check with your state’s law before you try to “hire” a free law clerk.

    An unhelpful job posting: 2nd year student needed for busy criminal law practice.

    A more helpful job description: Two-partner law firm seeks second year student with a strong interest in criminal defense, excellent writing skills, and willingness to engage in the variety of legal and non-legal research that supports appropriate defense strategies. We have practiced together since 2000, after leaving the Public Defender’s Office.

    This position is part-time during the school year; full-time during the summer. Potential for post-JD employment to be discussed during the summer of 2012.

    Please send a resume and cover that that describes your interest in criminal defense, demonstrates your skill as a writer, and gives two examples of your creative approach to research tasks.

    The more specific your job description, the more likely you will be to find the right candidate.

  • Kristin Brown

    Very good points on both the blog post and the comment by Susan. I would add, however, that mentoring an intern and providing them both with experience they never had before and opportunities that cannotbe gained in the classroom is likely a very rewarding experience. As a rising 3L I have been fortunate to have several internships already. Each position has left an indelible mark on me and each attorney has truly a gift in my professional life.
    By taking the time to choose carefully, but at the same time being willing to allow for students to grow, attorneys often find their own enthusiasm refreshed. Additionally, talented students will look at situations from all angles–tackling, for instance, a possession with intent case with not only criminal law but relevant and potent marital property law as well.
    I encourage all attorneys to mentor students. We are the incoming face of the profession. Make a difference to us, we will often do the same for you.

  • Cameron Parkhurst

    Good points. Highering a clerk to help out, but not putting in the time to train and mentor them, will guarantee they are unable to help you. An attorney in the office needs to be responsible for the clerk so the firm and the clerk are well served.