"The Best Legal Job You'll Ever Have"

Clerkships offer benefits throughout a legal career.

by Grace Renshaw Misty Johnson

When Misty Johnson '09 and her partner, Weslynn Reed '09, won Vanderbilt's 2008 Moot Court Competition, Johnson did not realize their victory would help her land a clerkship two years later with a pioneering African American federal judge she had long admired, Chief Judge Curtis Collier of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Johnson knew she wanted to clerk, but she had planned to spend at least two years working at a law firm in Atlanta first. However, when the firm deferred entering associates and sponsored pro bono fellowships, Johnson seized the opportunity to apply for clerkships, limiting her applications mostly to judges in the Southeast, where she planned to practice. "It was risky," she acknowledged. "The clerkship process is extremely competitive."

Thanks to her Moot Court victory, Johnson's risk paid off. Chief Judge Collier, whom she had met when he judged the final round of her Moot Court competition, invited her to interview after receiving her resumé and ultimately offered her a clerkship. "He absolutely remembered me from Moot Court!" she said. "I had made a good impression." She thrived during her year as one Chief Judge Collier's three law clerks. "It was an incredible experience to watch attorneys in the courtroom, watch cases go through the process from start to finish, and learn how different sides of the adversarial process approach various legal issues," she said.

She also gained two permanent advantages from her year as a clerk: a lifetime mentor and membership in a close-knit "family" of other former clerks. "Judge Collier is an amazing mentor to his law clerks," Johnson said. "He spent a lot of time talking with us and really seemed to enjoy the teaching aspect. He's very patient and has a great understanding of the role that a clerkship plays in cultivating a young attorney's career. He has a 'law clerks family reunion' every other year, and he sends out monthly emails where he updates everyone about what's going on with different people. We are definitely a large and growing family."

Her clerkship enabled Johnson to start work at her firm with a much better understanding of the substance and process of litigation. "Being a law clerk opens a lot of doors for you," she said. "It can have a huge impact on your career. You gain inside knowledge of how the court system works and what's important to judges—and what's not—and you have opportunities to interact with attorneys and deal with different areas of the law. Especially in this economy, it put me ahead of the game."

Johnson's clerkship also clarified her interest in the field of ethics and the role it plays in governance. She plans to enter the University of Kansas in fall 2012 to earn a Ph.D. in public administration, a new career avenue she discussed with Chief Judge Collier. "He was really encouraging," she said.

The practice of hiring a recent law school graduate to serve in chambers was pioneered by Horace Gray in the mid-1800s. Gray pioneered this practice while serving as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and continued it after being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He paid his assistant with personal funds. The federal government did not provide judges with funding to hire legally trained assistants until 1919. Although Congress designated the new positions as "law clerks" to distinguish them from stenographers, that distinction apparently remained unclear.1 Almost 40 years later, a 1958 New York Times Magazine article ruffled feathers by naively referring to Supreme Court law clerks as "the justices' private secretaries." Congress funded a clerk for each federal appellate judge in 1930 and to district court judges in 1945.2 States followed more slowly; some did not fund clerks for judges until the 1960s.

Judge Aleta Trauger '76

Today's federal appellate judges typically hire three to four law clerks each year, while federal district court judges typically hire two to three. Some hire one permanent or senior clerk. Others, including Judge Aleta Trauger '76 of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, hire only clerks with prior legal experience and require a two-year commitment. "I only interview students with excellent grades from top law schools whose writing samples and letters of recommendation are impressive," Judge Trauger said. "During the interview, I am interested to discover why the applicant wants to clerk at the trial level as opposed to the appellate level."

Chief Justice Connie Clark '79

Chief Justice Connie Clark '79 of the Tennessee Supreme Court cites another essential skill. "Writing experience is the most important single requirement," she said. "I look for applicants who have both achieved academically and demonstrated strong research and writing skills during law school."

While outstanding academic credentials and journal experience are common requirements, judges also look for stellar personal qualities. "When I interview prospective clerks I look for independence, intelligence, an inquisitive nature, and a well-developed sense of justice as well as a strong work ethic," said Judge James C. Mahan '73 of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada. "Grades are important, but not determinative." Chief Justice Clark believes prior civic and community service in a good indicator that applicants are "persons of integrity who have a strong work ethic." Judge Trauger looks for "enthusiasm for and interest in the clerkship job, as I describe it to them."

Judges also apply practical standards to their hiring decisions. "It is also absolutely necessary that applicants be team players who will get along well with the other staff members in my office and be willing to do the less than glamorous work necessary to make the office run smoothly—answering the phone, proofreading paperwork, and researching issues for speeches," Justice Clark said. "And, of course, a clerk must know and love the Bluebook!" Judge Trauger asks her staff and current law clerks for their impressions of prospective clerks. "I am looking for someone with a pleasant personality who will fit in to chambers," she said. "Humility is always an important quality for the very able people I am interviewing to possess."

Darby Dickerson '88

Humble qualifications sometimes help distinguish a particular candidate in a sea of highly qualified applicants. When Darby Dickerson '88 interviewed for a Seventh Circuit Court judge, "One question he asked was could I type?" she said. "I remember it vividly. That judge had only one secretarial assistant in his chambers."

Dickerson ultimately accepted a clerkship with Judge Harry Wellford on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Memphis, where she and her two fellow clerks used a Dictaphone to prepare briefs and opinion drafts. "We had oral arguments every six weeks, and each clerk had 12 to 13 cases to prepare," she said. "That meant we had six weeks to read the records and write a substantial case memorandum for 12 to 13 matters, and I'm sure to a district court clerk that seems luxurious."

In recent years, approximately 11 percent of graduates in each VLS class went to federal district or appellate clerkships, accompanied by eight to ten VLS alumni.

Dickerson credits her clerkship with Judge Wellford with helping her secure a position with Locke Purnell Rain Harrell (now Locke Lord) in Dallas, where she practiced until joining the faculty at Stetson Law in 1995. "In terms of the substance of the work I did, clerking probably gave me a two- or three-year head start," she said. "I was assigned more complicated cases, given more responsibility, and given federal appellate matters early in my career. It also really honed my writing skills. I definitely saw more during my one year as a clerk than I would have as a first-year associate at a law firm, and being part of the process and seeing close up what judges value and what their pet peeves are gives you a totally different perspective."

Now dean at Texas Tech School of Law after serving as Stetson's dean for eight years, Dickerson recalls being particularly impressed with the care with which judges approached their decisions. "When I was starting to interview with judges, I was very attuned to who appointed them, thinking they would view cases through the ideology of that president," she said. "But that didn't jive at all with my experience."

Mary Crossley '87

Mary Crossley '87, who won the Founders Medal for her class, preceded Dickerson in Judge Wellford's chambers. Crossley had decided to pursue a clerkship because she was considering a career in the legal academy. "I was extremely interested in the research and writing aspect of clerking, particularly at the appellate level," she said. "What I remember is learning about areas of law. There was a steady diet of social security and black lung cases, but I also dealt with cases that involved employment discrimination, tax, ERISA and other areas of law. One thing the experience reinforced for me was that lawyers are learning new things all of the time, which makes law a great profession for people who are intellectually curious."

Crossley, who is finishing a term as dean at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law after teaching at the University of California, Hastings, and Florida State, also recalls being surprised by "how wide the variation is in the quality of lawyering judges encounter. Judge Wellford and the other judges he worked with on the Sixth Circuit tried to decide cases using the facts found by the trial court and the relevant law, and on some level, part of what clerks do, at least with respect to the underpinnings of a case, is help make up for the deficiencies of one of the attorneys. But certainly I couldn't help but recognize how the effectiveness of each attorney's presentation affected how the case was decided."

Jim Sanders '70

While waiting for his military assignment fresh out of law school, Jim Sanders '70 spent six months clerking for Judge William Miller of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Nashville. Then, after serving in the Army for two years, Sanders returned to Nashville to clerk for Judge Frank Gray Jr. on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. He relished both experiences. "Judge Miller had been appointed by Eisenhower, and Democrats were deeply offended that the president had sent a Republican from East Tennessee to the Middle District," Sanders recalled. "But he was such a great judge that everyone soon loved and respected him."

Sanders learned "a type of intellectual courage I have never forgotten" from Judge Miller. "As he made decisions, he would literally be almost unconcerned with what the outcome was," Sanders said. "The question he was interested in was 'what does the law tell me to do?' Often that would lead him to a result he didn't particularly like, but he always had the intellectual courage to go where logic and the law took him."

Sanders returned to Nashville after two years of Army service to clerk for Judge Gray on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. He served for three years. "He had to run me off!" Sanders said. "Judge Gray really showed me the value of being open to new ideas and wanting to learn continuously. I loved that job, and I loved him—it was just a fantastic experience." Where Judge Miller had been quiet and unflappable, Judge Gray was infamous for becoming so irritated during trials that he would suddenly tear his glasses off and throw them down on the bench. "I bought him a very large, softly lined gray glasses case to put on his bench one Christmas," Sanders grinned. "He thought it was funny as hell."

Ed Boyle '92

Ed Boyle '92, a partner at Venable in Manhattan, calls his 18-month clerkship with Judge Joseph M. McLaughlin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit "the greatest legal job I ever had. There's no comparable position I can think of in the medical or business community. It allows you to stand right next to Caesar as Caesar makes decisions. It's an apprenticeship with a master of the craft. You receive wisdom at a very junior level about what kinds of advocacy are persuasive to judges, and what kinds are not."

Boyle was one of three clerks on Judge McLaughlin's staff. "We served 18-month clerkships, and our terms were staggered so that one clerk rotated off and a new clerk rotated on every six months," he said. "There was always a clerk with a year of experience, and always a new clerk learning the ropes. Judge McLaughlin considers part of his mission to teach, and he taught his clerks how to write, speak and think like lawyers. Sometimes he also taught those lessons to the attorneys appearing before him in court. But he did it all with a good heart and a tremendous sense of humor.

His year as a clerk changed Boyle's career plans. A native New Yorker, Boyle had originally planned to move to Atlanta after law school. "During the clerkship, I became intrigued by the kind of litigation I saw here in New York," he said. "When I read the briefs, studied the issues and the arguments, witnessed the developmental stages of an opinion from draft to final, and felt the energy in the courthouse, I decided I needed to stay in New York."

Instead of heading south, Boyle joined Davis Polk & Wardwell in Manhattan as a litigation associate.  He later moved to a litigation boutique firm, Hoguet Newman & Regal, where he had more "first chair" opportunities and the chance to develop his own clients.

Being part of the judge's extended family of clerks conferred another benefit to Boyle. "The judge's present and former clerks in many ways are one big extension of the McLaughlin family, all of us sharing the experience of being mentored by Judge McLaughlin," he said. "It's a strong bond." In 2006, Boyle was having a beer with one of Judge McLaughlin's sons, a partner in Venable's then-new New York office.  "He was describing the firm's efforts to build a New York office the right way, and it sounded exciting," Boyle said. "I met his colleagues at Venable, and really liked them. I realized this was a great opportunity, and I wanted to be a part of it." Boyle now chairs the commercial litigation group in Venable's New York office and heads the firm's class action defense group.

Ashley Jones Johnson '04

Clerkships often involve intense learning experiences. Ashley Jones Johnson '04, who clerked first on the Fourth Circuit for Judge J. Michael Luttig in 2004-05 and then for Justice Clarence Thomas on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005-06, recalled Judge Luttig's exacting scrutiny of each writing assignment, particularly early in the clerkship. "Judge Luttig took very seriously his role as a mentor and trainer," she said. "He would review a draft with his clerks page by page, identifying exactly where and how the analysis or language could be more precise. He was very hands-on about everything you wrote. There's no question that I'm a far better writer than I would have been had I not clerked for him."

Now an appellate litigator with Gibson Dunn in Dallas, Johnson credits her success in securing a clerkship the following year with Justice Thomas to the experience she gained in her clerkship with Judge Luttig. "He played a huge role," she said.  She views her opportunities to see good advocates in action on the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court and to learn about the certiorari process as a Supreme Court clerk as priceless.

Chief Justice Clark of the Tennessee Supreme Court acknowledges that hiring newly minted law graduates as clerks has its disadvantages, but she believes they are outweighed by the "fresh perspective" a young graduate brings. "It's true that using brand new clerks involves much mentoring and teaching time by both senior clerks and judges," she said. "None of the writing or research done in law school is identical to what is required in chambers. However, clerks with limited experience may raise a question that has not previously been considered or perhaps should be reconsidered. New clerks also bring familiarity with and knowledge of cutting-edge research methods and new sources, and they afford me the opportunity to mentor some of the best and brightest new lawyers, which I consider a privilege and very much enjoy."

However, in addition to hiring a recent graduate for a one- or two-year term, Justice Clark employs a permanent clerk. "I have the best of both worlds," she said. "I have an experienced senior clerk who is familiar with my analytical style and the history of how this Court has addressed many issues. But every one to two years, I also have the joy of hearing from a fresh new mind who can still see the 'forest' while I am wandering through the individual 'trees' of prior precedent. The combination of legal viewpoints is always exhilarating!"

Chris Lyons '10

Clerkships in specialty courts can be a way for young lawyers to ensure they end up practicing in their preferred area of law. Chris Lyons '10 set his sights on clerking on the Delaware Court of Chancery because of his interest in practicing corporate litigation. As a 2L in Professor Randall Thomas's Corporations class, "I realized Delaware's impact on corporate law and knew that was where I wanted to clerk," Lyons said. "What makes the Delaware Chancery Court really cool is that it specializes in business and corporate litigation, and it's an equity court, not a law court. Because of that, it handles a lot of mergers-and-acquisitions cases and business disputes. It's the big leagues for corporate law."

Lyons applied for a clerkship in Chancery Court at a time when there was a vacant seat on the court. He interviewed with then-Vice Chancellor (now Chancellor) Leo E. Strine Jr., who serves on Vanderbilt's adjunct law faculty, for a position with the incoming Vice Chancellor and was offered a clerkship with newly appointed Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster. In Laster's chambers during the 2010-11 term, he worked on the Del Monte merger case, among other high-profile cases. Now an associate with Richards Layton and Finger in Wilmington, he touts a number of advantages of his year as a clerk. "Now that I'm in practice, I can see how the experience of seeing people's arguments from an objective viewpoint and learning which arguments are worth making and which aren't makes me better able to advise my clients," he said. "I also get opportunities I don't think I would have gotten at this point in my career."

Rene Augustine '90

When Rene Augustine '90 clerked for Judge John Hargrove of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, she was required to make a two-year commitment. "Judge Hargrove felt that the first year of the clerkship was for us and the second year for the court," she said. "Serving a clerkship is a lot like getting another graduate degree. In those days, the pay was very low, but as a district court clerk I gained some powerful insights on how a litigator could be effective."

The legal job market had been strong in 1990, when Augustine graduated, but that changed in early 1991. "During my first year as a clerk, law firms were sending letters to clerks asking us to apply for positions," she said. "Then the economy took a turn for the worse, and firms were actually laying off associates." The letters stopped coming, and Augustine watched her co-clerk, "who had impeccable credentials," send letters to 200 firms and fail to net any interviews from the mass-mailing. She hit on another strategy. After choosing a powerful attorney at each of the 10 D.C.-based firms she most wanted to work for, Augustine sent her resumé directly to that attorney. "Clerkships are highly valued at major law firms," she said. "I decided I would try to make sure my resumé wouldn't land in the circular file with the other 500 people applying for the job." Her innovative approach netted Augustine nine interviews and a number of job offers. She joined Covington and Burling when her clerkship ended in 1992.

Andrew Gould '10

Andrew Gould '10 is finishing his second clerkship—with Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston—this fall after clerking for Judge Raymond M. Kethledge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2010-11. "I'm glad I was able to reverse the classic pattern of clerking on a district court and then a circuit court," he said. "A mentor who also did two clerkships once told me that the circuit clerkship is like law school on steroids, while the district clerkship is like nothing you experienced in law school. She's right. Cases before the circuit court often can involve tricky issues of law, and the opinions have an academic quality. At the district court, you're constantly responding to a rapidly changing docket and handling issues such as discover disputes that often are not taught in law school."

After his year as an appellate clerk, Gould acknowledges being daunted by the workload at the district court. "I work at one of the busiest courts in the nation," he said. "Because of the sheer volume of cases, the job is extremely fast-paced." Seeing cases at the appellate level afforded Gould insights that are helpful at the district level. "As an appellate clerk, I often would begin by reading the district court's decision," he said. "It's the closest thing to an unbiased recitation of the case's facts and issues presented. At the district level, you're starting from scratch and building the record to make matters as clear as possible in the event of an appeal."

Professor Michael Bressman

Professor Michael Bressman, who directs Vanderbilt's Clerkship Program, strongly believes "There's a clerkship for every student who wants one." However, Bressman warns, students who hope to secure a clerkship should start working toward that goal as soon as they start law school. Bressman clerked for Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1992-93, and he guides many third-year students and alumni through the application process and helps them prepare for interviews. Bressman holds meetings for first-year students in which he outlines the courses they need to take, the importance of journal membership, and extracurricular activities that will make them more attractive clerkship candidates. In the second year, he holds information meetings detailing the application and interviewing process and also meets individually with 60 to 80 students to map out specific application strategies.

Echoing many clerks in calling his year with Judge Henderson "the best job I ever had," Bressman is committed to ensuring that as many Vanderbilt students as possible have an opportunity to clerk. "Clerking is such a great learning and professional experience," he said. "I want to help each student or alum who wants a clerkship get one."

David Barnes '11

David Barnes '11, who won the Founders Medal for his class, was particularly excited about clerking for Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this term because of the varied caseload. "As a clerk, you are exposed to so many different areas of the law that you might never encounter in private practice," Barnes said.

Clerks universally cite exposure to many areas of law and improved writing skills as major benefits

"I hold hearings on all but the simplest civil motions, and I rely on my clerks to read the motion, opposition and reply, and prepare a bench brief for me setting for the positions of the various parties and (most importantly) a recommendation from the clerk as to how I should rule. My criterion in deciding motions is simple: What is the right decision here, the fair and just decision under the law? The clerks and I discuss the motion and recommendation and agree on the proper disposition. The clerks then accompany me into the courtroom for the hearing and listen to the arguments with me. We have usually analyzed the motion properly, and I rule in accordance with our in-chambers discussion."
Senior Judge James C. Mahan '73, U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada

Clerkships inevitably involve humbling learning experiences

Professor Terry Maroney

"Right after law school, I was clerking for a stunningly smart judge. I thought I was pretty smart too, and after all, she hired me. I wrote her a bench memo, in which I was primarily focused on what in my view was the big, important issue—and, over where I wasn't looking, I made a mistake. Specifically, I relied on the opinion of someone in the clerk's office as to how days were calculated in meeting a filing deadline, rather than looking up the rule myself. My judge called me into her chambers, threw the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure down on her desk, and yelled, "Consider my mind BOGGLED!" I was deeply ashamed. And that was exactly how I should have felt. That shame jolted me into being a better lawyer, one who treats no issue as a small issue, and who takes no short cuts."
—From the 2012 VLS Commencement speech delivered by Professor Terry Maroney


  1. 1 Baier, Paul R. "The Law Clerks: Profile of an Institution," Vanderbilt Law Review 26 (1973)
  2. 2 History of the Federal Judiciary: Law Clerks, www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf
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