Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Do Clerkships Make Financial Sense? Part 3

In Part 1 of this series we discussed the cost to the student of completing the clerkship and found it to be an estimate of $95K.  In Part 2 we discussed one of the typical reasons cited for undertaking a clerkship - that it "will make you a better lawyer" - and we found that the comparison was flawed.  That typically people were comparing themselves before the clerkship to themselves after the clerkship - and they really should have been comparing themselves after the clerkship to themselves after having completed a year at a law firm.  In this post we will address the remaining reasons for performing a clerkship that are typically cited.

2)  Is a clerkship attractive to law firms?
Here, the comparison should not be based on "many law students that complete clerkships get hired", but on the incremental hiring desirability that is due to the clerkship.  That is, the students that complete clerkships would typically have been attractive anyway without the clerkship and the clerkship is not adding much - as discussed above in Part 2.

3) Does a clerkship help you make connections with judges?
Yep, but for most practices it really doesn't matter - the exception being small-town practice and the Supreme Court as discussed above in Part 2.  Remember that whatever judge you actually clerk with is probably going to have to recuse themselves if you ever appear in their court.

4) Are clerkships attractive to clients?
Typically not.  Having done a clerkship gets stale.  For example, 10 years after you have completed your clerkship and you are trying to get big clients, clients are going to be far more concerned with your recent win record and their impression of your advocacy then whether you completed a clerkship 10 years ago.  Further, in most practices, the lawyer is not going to be doing client pitches until they are at least 4 (or so) years out.  Consequently, your clerkship at that time would have been 3 years in the past - which is not necessarily relevant and timely to the client.

There are two exceptions here.  The first is small-town practice as discussed above.  Here, the length of your friendsip with the judges is a selling factor.  The other exception would be a Supreme Court clerkship when the client is hiring the firm to advocate before the Supreme Court.  In that case, even if you clerked for them 10 years ago, your clerkship is relevant and desired.

5) Are clerkships prestigious?
To who?  Typically not to law firms and clients, as discussed above.  They also typically don't make you a better lawyer than an actual year in practice does.  They also cost you a lot of money.  Where's the prestige?

6) Academia loves the "prestige" of clerkships
Ahhh.  Here's the prestige.  Just about every law professor that I have spoken with thinks that a clerkship carries a great deal of prestige.  But why?  It doesn't typically help you get hired in a law firm or to get clients.  The training to be a practicing attorney that you get is not as good as what you would receive during your first year at a law firm.  However, you have to realize that that is not the world that a typical law professor lives in - they are a legal scholar, not a practicing lawyer - and they are giving advice that is useful in their world, not the world of a practicing attorney.  Their world makes a big deal about many marks of "prestige" that are substantially irrelevant to clients and the practice of law, such as:
  • The law school you attended -  The client really cares about whether you will you win.  Most non-lawyer clients think that Harvard Law is #1 and couldn't tell you whether other law schools are T1 or T4.
  • Whether you were on law review - Many clients don't even know what that means - even many Fortune 500 C-level execs.
  • Whether you published an academic paper - The style of such a paper alone is a turn-off for clients because it typically is not immediately accessible and useful.  Also, the topics are often arcane and unusable.  Giving them such a paper may very well lower their opinion of you and your effectiveness as a lawyer.
However, if you are going to be a legal scholar (for example, try to get a job as a law professor), then completing a clerkship can give you a considerable boost. It seems to be what those in the "legal scholar" profession really want to see.  However, please recognize that "legal scholar" is a different profession from "practicing lawyer."

To take it one step further, in a very real sense a clerkship has "prestige" because law professors think that it should have "prestige" - and not for any other reason.  It doesn't help them teach.  It doesn't help them write papers.  It doesn't really give them more insight into a litigation than they would get in a law firm.  It also gives them relatively little insight into the actual practice of law.  However, it seems to have been determined by them that a clerkship has "prestige" - maybe due to the proximity of what they believe to be "power" (that is, the judge).

I'll throw clerkships one more bone - in addition to being useful if you want to be a law professor, a clerkship would be useful if you want to be a judge.  However, neither of these positions have much to do with the actual practice of law in a law firm.  Also note that there are relatively few of these positions available - and they are typically held for life.

I have spoken to many practicing lawyers that have completed a clerkship.  They typically break into two camps.  The first camp is upfront about the experience.  For example, one lawyer that completed a two-year federal court clerksip said that they "just wasted two years of their life and wished that they had just gone straight to a law firm."  In a similar, but less bitter, vein many lawyers have said to me that they thought the experience was OK, but they really didn't learn anything that they would not have learned in a law firm.

The second camp is a little less upfront about the experience. When I ask them about it, they sometimes start by saying something like "It was a great experience and I really learned a lot!"  However, when I follow up with "Great!  What precisely did you learn that you would not have learned during your first year at a law firm?" they are often at a loss. 

If you are considering a clerkship, the first consideration is whether you are going to be a legal scholar/judge or a practicing attorney.  If you are going to be a legal scholar/judge, then a clerkship makes sense.  However, if you are going to be a practicing attorney, most clerkships do not make sense - especially if it is going to cost you $95K!

If you are still thinking about a clerkship, then I urge you to talk to practicing attorneys that completed a clerkships at least a year or two ago (to give them some perspective.)  Be sure to question them directly about what they learned in the clerkship that they would not have learned in their first year in a law firm.  Ask for specific examples of practice and client benefits that they got because of their clerkship that they would not have gotten if they had worked at the firm.  I can submit to you in all confidence that the experience and "prestige" of the clerkship that they report will be significantly less than that typically proclaimed at law schools - if they even regard their clerkship fondly at all.


  1. One alternative to doing a clerkship is to do an unpaid internship with a judge in your first summer of law school. That way, you are investing only 10 weeks instead of a whole year. Probably you would not have gotten a paid legal position during your first summer anyway so the opportunity cost is pretty minimal.

    But anyway, I basically agree that a clerkship may be worth it if you are gunning for a job like law professor. I would guess it's also pretty helpful if you want to become an assistant US attorney or a partner at a firm like Cravath.

    The trouble is that these sorts of positions -- AUSA; Cravath partner; law professor -- are so competitive that for most people it's probably not worth the trouble to gun for them. It's like taking a year off from law school to train for an NBA tryout.

  2. Hi Anonymous,
    Sure - taking an internship after your first year if you have nothing else is fine. That's a measure to try to at least get something close to relevant experience if you have been blocked from law firms. Note that on the legal scholar side, they probably will not give you any credit for it when attempting to teach law school. However, as a small-town practitioner, that could be useful.

    I'm not sure about US attorneys, but with regard to making partner it is your business that really counts, not whether you went on a clerkship. A law firm is a business, so brinnging in clients with $1M in business is what counts - not a clerkship.

    With regard to your competitiveness comment, the fact that the positions are competitive should not discourge people from pursuing them - the fact that they don't do you any real good (outside of a couple of exeptions) is what should discourage people from pursuing them! I have to disagree you you a little and say that it's not like training for an NBA tryout because there is no big payoff from doing a clerkship.