So, You Want to be a Law Clerk?
10 Things I Wish I Could Tell My Pre-Law Clerk Self
by Cameron Williams
If you are a law student, you have probably started thinking about finding a Clerkship. Clerkships are a great way for law students to get firsthand experience. In addition to being mentored by seasoned attorneys, clerkships are an opportunity to put the skills you are learning in the classroom to work. If you’re like me, you are probably (a little) nervous and (a lot) excited about embarking on this part of your legal journey – after all, venturing into the unknown can be both scary and rewarding! With this in mind, as my first Clerkship with Sodoma Law draws to a close, I took the time to write down some advice I would give my pre-law clerk self.
1. Mastering the office calendar! Before starting my summer clerkship, I primarily relied on my phone’s email app and my memory to remember assignment deadlines for school.
The most significant learning curve for me coming into my summer clerkship was how to use outlook. When working in a law firm – especially a busy family law practice like this one – keeping up with deadlines, phone calls, and meetings is no easy task for a basic email app, let alone my memory. This is compounded by the fact that, generally, law clerks are not necessarily assigned to a specific attorney or team. This means you are free to work with any and every attorney in the office, and you often do! Going from the basic email app on your phone to Outlook is a bit of a learning curve but familiarizing yourself with the email and calendaring platform your firm uses is crucial. Not only did it allow me to know which attorneys were in the office and when, I could see what deadlines were approaching, what projects attorneys were working on, and what cases were coming down the pipeline. Attorneys live and die by their calendars, and after learning to use Outlook I’m not sure I will be able to go back to my basic email app ever again.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Whether that be a clarifying question, or to join the matter they are currently working on, or just to ask where the printer paper is located – asking questions is part of the learning process. During my summer at Sodoma Law I probably sent out no less than 100 emails to attorneys, paralegals, legal assistants, and even the communications director asking to be included in all kinds of projects around the office. When it came to working on legal assignments, I never hesitated to ask the overseeing attorney the questions I had. These weren’t just legal questions either, it’s also important to set expectations when you’re working on a project. I always clarified what they asked me to do, how they wanted it presented to them, and when. This way, you are not assuming what the project was about and not writing a 10-page research memo when all the attorney expected was a short email with the holdings of the relevant cases.
3. Acing your (virtual) interview.
. I have had a unique law school experience thanks in large part to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Most of my first-year law school classes were conducted either hybrid or entirely online through Zoom. When it came to securing a job for my 1L summer, it was no different. People tell me that in the Before Time recruiters would come to my law school, set up a booth or rent a suite in the hotel across the street, and interview students. But in the pandemic era, just like my law school classes, my interview with Sodoma Law was on Zoom from the comfort of my own bedroom. As with anything on Zoom, it can be hard to feel connected to who you are meeting with, and in an interview that could mean not getting an offer. My career counselor at school told me the key to online interviews was to really show my personality, something that can easily get lost via Zoom. I also prepared questions for them. I asked about the office culture, how my work as a clerk would be evaluated, and how I would be expected to contribute as a law clerk. Now I wouldn’t necessarily write these exact questions down and recite them in your interview; I think the practice manager might catch on eventually, but it is a good idea to have some questions prepared. Remember, an interview goes both ways! Last but certainly not least, I tried to mitigate the risk of having any technical difficulties during the interview. I knew that the microphone in my webcam would sporadically go out, so I wore my headphones instead. I also ensured that the only application my computer was running was the Zoom application, so I wouldn’t risk any internet interruptions.
4. Write everything down.
This may seem trivial; you know how to take notes, but as a law clerk, especially initially, you don’t really know what is and is not essential. Or, when one of the attorneys gives you a project to work on, you might think you can just remember what they asked you to do. Still, they might have asked you to research four questions, and now can only remember three of the questions they wanted answered. As you sit at your desk, staring at the screen trying to remember what that fourth question was, you learn an important lesson about the power of notetaking. Taking notes gives you something to refer back to, without having to go back to that attorney and ask them to tell you the assignment again – spending valuable time rehashing instructions I got into the habit of always keeping a notebook and pen with me. When I had a question pop into my head, I could write it down before I forgot. When I had a list, I could get all my questions answered at once instead of constantly going back and forth to the attorney’s office.
5. Attend any social outings! Or the virtual happy hours.
Sodoma Law places a lot of emphasis on building a fun office culture, with a commitment to our community, clients, and each other. Social outings are also just fun! As a law clerk, I would recommend treating the firm events and happy hours as an extension of your clerkship. Sure, performing a skit at improv night in front of the entire firm isn’t everyone’s favorite thing. But they are opportunities for you to interact with other firm members outside of the office. Social events are a great way to build connections with your colleagues and show them you are more than just a well of legal knowledge and research ability. Networking inside of your workplace is just as important as building a network outside of your own office. Networking isn’t only about future employment; it is about making sure the people that work with you are comfortable recommending you and relying on you.
6. Your clerkship is like a big 8-week audition.
During your clerkship you will learn a few things about practicing law, and firm leadership will have the chance to evaluate you and whether or not you may have a potential future at the firm. Likewise, your clerkship is also your time to consider the firm and the practice of family law itself. Use your clerkship to get a feel for what family law attorneys do and the types of cases and clients they have. Look to the other attorneys in the office and ask yourself if you could see yourself in their shoes. It’s not uncommon for attorneys to realize a certain practice area isn’t for them. This is not just an audition for future employment, it is your opportunity to audition for the role of attorney and see if the shoe fits.
Congratulations! You aced your (virtual) interview, and you were offered the clerkship! If you’re anything like me, you immediately thought, “What the hell am I supposed to wear to work every day?” Now I’m not saying you need to run out to Tom Ford and buy a new suit, but your clerkship is an opportunity to start building your professional wardrobe. Look at how the other people in the office dress and use them as a guide – and don’t forget to review the company dress code. You can begin to add pieces slowly to build a professional wardrobe, or your “lawyer costume”, as one of my classmates likes to call it.
8. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.
For many of us, it is natural to want to blend in. It is much easier to sit at your desk and not seek out additional projects than it is to put yourself out there. You might even get away with it. But introducing yourself to the attorney that has a deposition every other day and seemingly never sleeps could get you invited to their hearing that week just because they knew your name. Don’t be afraid to take risks and put yourself out there, you never know what doors it might open.
9. Learn how to keep track of your time.
Remember those firsthand experiences I was talking about? Law school teaches you a lot; billing or tracking your time is not one of those things… which is ironic when you consider how integral timekeeping is to the practice of law. One of the most important things about working in a law firm, whether it be Sodoma Law or somewhere else, is correctly accounting for time spent on tasks and filling in your timesheet accordingly. Before my clerkship the most I ever had to worry about was clocking in and out for work. Imagine my surprise and confusion when I had to start filling out a very detailed timesheet every day!
10. Set Goals!
! If you know what you want to get out of your clerkship experience, that’s great! Write your goals down and let your supervisor or the practice manager know what those goals are and have conversations about how you can work towards achieving those goals. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish during your clerkship, that’s okay too. I was in that boat when I first started, but I made it a priority to sit down with my supervisor, and together we were able to set a couple goals and make a plan for how I would be able to meet those goals during my clerkship. In fact, one of those goals was writing this very article!
While every firm, and thus every clerkship, is different – these 10 tips will help prepare you to embark on your clerkship.