Advice for new circuit clerks

Now is the time of year when new federal appellate clerkships start, which got me thinking back to my own clerkship for a wonderful Tenth Circuit judge. (The other judge I interviewed with was Chief Judge Becker here in the Third Circuit. So close!) My clerkship was one of the best years of my life, and I’ve heard many other former clerks, before and since, say the same thing.

If you’re just starting a Third Circuit clerkship, you’ve probably heard lots of folks like me wax enthusiastic about clerking. You’re excited, and you should be. Walking into the courthouse that first day is a singular feeling.

But when I started my clerkship I had a pretty hazy idea of what clerkships actually were like. All the misty-eyed encouragement is nice, but it doesn’t give you the whole picture. Understanding a few realities going in can help you get the most out of your clerkship.

So here are six things you should know:

1. The applause is over. Law school is a firehose of feedback. Class rank, exams, jobs, law review, and on and on — as a law student you were measured against your peers constantly and minutely. You came out on the winning end often enough to land a circuit clerkship, and those triumphant moments were intoxicating.

But, when it comes to feedback, clerking is nothing like law school. You’re working just as hard, but suddenly there’s no medal ceremony at the end of every race. No one’s handing out prizes for the best opinion drafts. No one’s telling you whether your bench memo was an A+ or a B-, or why. Judges don’t care whether you rank 8th or 58th on their list of all-time best clerks, which doesn’t exist.

In law school, you knew how you were doing down to the hundredth of a gradepoint. In your clerkship, you may wonder for weeks or months, without the barest hint. The competitive fire, the moments of triumph and affirmation that got you through law school — they won’t get you through your clerkship.

2. Judges are busy. When I was a law student daydreaming about clerking, I pictured myself in the judge’s office, earnestly hashing out big legal questions with my co-clerks and the judge. Afterwards, in my daydream, the judge would mosey over to my office, lean back in a chair with his feet up on my desk, and we’d bat around reflections on the big opinion we just issued.

That ain’t how it went.

Every day, on average, my judge read 1,000 pages of briefs and decided two cases. He estimated that he wrote the equivalent of two law review articles a week. So there wasn’t a whole lot of time left to sit around and bullshit with me.

3. Extroverts beware. One of my co-clerks was a true people-person, warm and social. For folks like her, a circuit clerkship can be a lonely bore. Coming from law school, appellate clerking can feel like a year of monkish solitude. You spend most days shackled to your computer, researching and cite-checking and drafting. You get a bit of human contact with your nerdy co-clerks, but a lot less contact with other chambers, and, unlike district clerkships, no contact at all with the lawyers.

That’s fine and dandy if you’re like me — another of my co-clerks dubbed me a Lover of the Law, and I do believe his tone was mocking. But if you’re an extrovert, know that you’re probably not going to get all the social sustenance you need at work, so try to get it somewhere.

4. Accuracy before artistry. Law school rewards flash: it’s less important to be correct than to seem brilliant. Most exam questions don’t even have a ‘right’ answer. They’re a backdrop against which you dance and preen, outdoing your classmates with your elegant insights. No one cares too much whether you concluded in the end that Daisy’s negligence proximately caused Peter’s injury or not.

But, as a clerk, your focus can’t be your stardom. If it is, you can stretch too far to find and reach issues that seem important, even when (especially when) the parties haven’t briefed them adequately. You can spend too much time crafting grand Gorsuchian passages and too little time slogging through the record.

If your focus is on standing out, you’re prone to make more mistakes. Maybe that trade-off was worth it when you were a law student, but not when you’re a law clerk.

5. Be your best self. A circuit clerkship is a nifty thing to have on your CV, but for many the credential ends up mattering less than the relationships they built during the clerkship. Of course you want to charm and impress your judge, but don’t lose sight of your co-clerks and the clerks in other chambers. In the decades ahead they’re going to be doing amazing things — their friendship will enrich your life and maybe help your career. Do your best not to be an ass.

6. Let the judge be the judge. One day down the road, after the initial panic recedes, you just won’t believe how much power you’ve got as a clerk. You untangled how the case should come out, you persuaded your judge, and now it’s going into F.3d. It’s heady stuff.

That’s all fine. You really do get to have an impact, and that’s part of the fun. But keep it in perspective. You’re not the one who made it past the Judiciary Committee, and you’re not the one whose name goes on the opinions. And thank god for that. Because, for all your jaw-dropping Bluebook mastery, you’re still a knucklehead with a career’s worth of lessons yet to learn. Your job isn’t to decide cases: your job is to help your judge decide. Remember that, and you’ll do okay.

 

For most, the cliche turns out to be true: clerking for a federal appellate judge is an amazing opportunity. But chances are it will be a different version of amazing than the one you envisioned beforehand. The sooner you accept that, the easier it will be to appreciate everything your clerkship does offer.

 

As I was working on this post, I also solicited input on the topic from others. Here are those thoughts, verbatim with light editing for consistency:

  • Some lawyers just aren’t very good. While it is true that you will marvel, on occasion, at the quality of lawyers’ briefs, you also find yourself marveling that someone had the gall to submit (insert piece of trash here) to the marble palace in which you now reside. The mean average of briefs hovers around “adequate”; which, if you think about it, is probably ideal if it gets the job done. But there’s some terrible lawyering out there, more terrible still when your independent research–and get used to doing independent research–suggests that the party could have won IF ONLY…. Such is life in an adversarial system.

  • Despite the above: most clerks come into a clerkship without extensive background in actual practice. You may not know why a lawyer did something you deem puzzling, but there may be a good reason. A lawyer’s mistake, or failure to notice a case, may seem inexcusable, but you also don’t know this attorney’s caseload. People make mistakes, and it is not the job of the clerk to punch downwards.

  • Some appellate judges are “lovers of the law,” others emphasize practicality, and most are somewhere in the middle. Don’t interpret your boss’s lack of enthusiasm for the intricacies of the FLSA as a suggestion that your work is not important or appreciated. Getting things right matters.

  • Sometimes an opinion will have passed across countless desks, have undergone scrutiny by multiple pairs of eyes … and it will still have a serious substantive mistake. The law is complex; no one can be a master of all domains. Learn when to speak up, and how.

  • With occasional exceptions, federal appellate judges do not decide cases on their lonesome. In each case, whether your judge is writing or not, you will have two other judges (and their clerks) to contend with. Some Circuits are known for their collegiality, and others for their frost. But unlike in District Court, your boss will not be her own fiefdom, and that will, for better or worse, affect how your chambers decides and writes cases — both for the present and also the future, because federal appellate judges are the ultimate repeat players.

  • You will make mistakes. You will receive pushback. Try to act constructively about the former — is there anything you can do? anything you can fix? — and graciously about the latter. Perhaps the other judge, or co-clerk, isn’t beyond stupid. Perhaps they have a point that you should consider.

  • Don’t be an asshole or asshole-adjacent. Your co-clerks will be with you the entire term — perhaps shorter, perhaps longer, but in any event long enough. Office politics are magnified in a cloistered environment, and fast. Consider it a learning experience. Instead of picking a fight over Alex’s inability to ever clean the sink, breathe deep, focus, and think of whether it’s worth three weeks of avoiding eye contact and awkward lunches with the boss. Of course it isn’t.

Hey former circuit clerks: what did we miss? What do you wish someone had told you when you started? Email me, and I’ll post any good responses (anonymously, if you prefer) in a follow-up.

 

UPDATE: Orin Kerr responded on Twitter yesterday with his own take on advice for new clerks. Highlights: “Work hard to get along with the judge’s secretary,” and “Most briefs stink.”

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