Law Students: Consider a Trial Court Clerkship

When I was in law school, we were pretty much told that the “least prestigious” clerkships after graduation were with a state trial court. After clerking with a state trial court judge for fourteen months, I still can’t speak to the level of prestige the position has. On the other hand, I can tell you it’s been an amazing experience. But is a trial court clerkship right for you?

Decide if Trial Work is For You

Having spoken to numerous fellow clerks, I discovered that many of them came to the job unsure of their future plans. After a year or two in a trial courtroom though, they knew if the courtroom was where they wanted to be. Most knew within the first six months of the clerkship if a trial court was for them, or if they needed to switch gears and find something different. Depending on the organization of the court, it could also be an opportunity to find your niche. Sure, you may know that you want to practice civil litigation, but working in a trial court can shed light on the difference between personal injury and toxic torts.

Get to Know the Local Bar

A key part of networking is meeting local lawyers. There is no better way to meet local attorneys than by working in the local courthouse every day. You will get to know which attorneys are in court regularly, and which are good at it (see below). More importantly, you’ll become known. If you are good at your job, people will notice. Writing well—reasoned opinions and orders can get you noticed by the attorneys in the case.

Learn How Not to Practice Law

Like any profession, the law is full of poor practitioners of this age—old art. If you are around local attorneys all day, you will quickly learn which attorneys are worth learning from, and which aren’t. In a trial court you’re in a unique position to observe this. Instead of relying solely on briefs or a brief oral argument to win a case, trial attorneys need to put in a lot more face time. This will give you, the observant trial court clerk, ample opportunity to observe these lawyers in action. Not only will you be able to see who is a strong writer and who could use some work, but you will find out who treats the judge and the staff with respect. As a young lawyer, you can find mentors amongst the attorneys you respect, and learn which attorneys can’t be trusted and should be avoided.



  1. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    Thank you, Josh. And a few more points:

    1. Trial court clerkships are great for a new lawyer who is considering relocation or who is going “home” to a place that is remote from her law school’s location. The combination of overview of the legal community and opportunities to both observe and network are invaluable because her foot is “in the door,” but she has not made a long-term employment obligation.

    2. Many former trial court clerks of my acquaintance have used their clerkships as an overview of law practice in general. In a court of general jurisdiction, judges and clerks face a relentless pile of wildly assorted cases, and more often than not, they are not related to subjects studied in law school. Clever clerks used this exposure as a career exploration opportunity.

    3. Best of all, almost everyone I have ever known who has clerked will say that it was the best job in their careers. Just ask them.

  2. I can’t say enough about how great a networking opportunity this is if you plan on working in a rural area. I don’t think I’d have my current job if I hadn’t been a clerk.

    • Not to mention that a rural clerkship may present a good opportunity to see how one feels about practicing in a rural area, take stock of the average age of the local bar and niches that may need to be filled, and that competition for a rural clerkship may be less than in a major metropolitan area.

  3. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    One more great benefit of clerking: A clerk who moved directly into a county attorney (prosecution) office wrote to me to say that his clerkship gave him back the self-confidence that was drained away in law school.

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