If you’re in law school (or recently graduated) you should find a way to hang out with judges while they work. The benefits are off the charts, and it’s pretty fun (at least some of the time). You’ll learn more, and more of value, spending time with a trial court judge than doing pretty much anything else.
For some lawyers, trial courts are a lot like the end zone in football—the place where you either win or lose the game. But for most lawyers, trial courts are the place you’ll do almost anything to avoid visiting. Either way, much of a lawyer’s time is spent thinking about how an issue might be handled in a trial court. That’s why spending time there, and getting inside judges’ heads, is so worthwhile.
Why Hang Out With Judges?
Spending time with trial court judges, whether as a judicial clerk, extern, intern, or what-have-you, and helping them do their work, allows you to see how the law really works (unlike what you learn in law school, which is taught mostly by people who either never spent a day in court or haven’t been in court for a long time). At the trial court level, judges are usually extraordinarily busy. Their schedule (depending on where they serve) can vary wildly in terms of both the types of cases they hear and the kind of lawyers that appear. So the judge relies a lot on her clerk, staff, and often on law students earning credits for helping out.
Not every judge is brilliant, but every judge’s idea of what quality lawyering is matters to quite a few lawyers. In chambers, you’ll learn a ton about what makes for good and bad lawyering. Sometimes the judge will tell you directly, but often you’ll hear it from court staff. (Also, knowing court staff is a big advantage.)
How to Hang Out With Judges
Get a judicial clerkship. This is the best way, obviously, as you’ll get to know the judge very well and have a hand in a lot of her work. Judicial clerkships are rated in terms of prestige inversely to how useful they are to a future lawyer (unless you’re going to be the next John G. Roberts). Sure, go clerk at SCOTUS if you can, but while that will get you a fat salary in BigLaw (and probably no free time to spend all that money), it won’t make you worth much in litigation or much of anything else. Most cases are heard in state trial court, so that’s where the best education is for the typical future attorney.
How to get a clerkship? Some judges hire people based on their grades—these are typically judges who got good grades—and they usually aren’t the best judges, frankly. The best judges hire people who have appeared before them in court as student attorneys, or who they have gotten to know through extern/internships or clinics or the like. The judge spends a lot of time with her clerk; she wants that to be time spent with someone she likes. So give as many judges as possible a chance to get to know you as a student or as a student attorney, and like you as a fun person to work with. Even if you never wind up getting a clerkship, you’ll still reap a lot of the same benefits.
People who hang with judges get jobs
Unless you are planning to go solo, you won’t get a job unless you get to know lawyers who might hire you. Lawyers that are in court a lot are very busy and just might give you a job. Also, many judges use their connections to get their clerks good jobs. And, lawyers know that new lawyers that have spent a lot of time in court know how things work and how to get things done. Finally, you’ll know which lawyers you want to work for because what you haven’t learned about them, the judge probably knows.
You can’t get a clerkship? No internship either? Don’t give up. Put on your lawyer costume, and go to the courthouse. Watch hearings and trials. Pay attention and take notes. Introduce yourself to a working lawyer and ask him an informed question about his case. Ask him about a ruling the judge made. Ask him who his favorite and least favorite judges are. Lawyers, like everyone else, love to talk about themselves. Offer him a cup of coffee. Tell him you are seeking a clerkship or internship. Maybe he’ll introduce you to the judge. If nothing else, you might find a friend or mentor. please note how I’m not using the “N” word here (no, the other one, that starts with “net” and ands with “ing.”
Law happens in court. So to be a happening lawyer, find a way to get there.
(image: courthouse from Shutterstock)