Contrary to what the title implies, the average law clerk performs very few standard clerical tasks. Also referred to as “judicial clerk,” an individual employed in this position encompasses many roles including liaison, administrative assistant, and researcher. The most important function of a law clerk, however, involves helping the judge make informed legal decisions. Keep reading to learn more about a law clerk.
What Does a Law Clerk Do?
What a law clerk does depends on the type of court they serve and the judge’s preference. As an assistant to a judge, this legal professional contributes directly to the judicial process. This position requires extensive knowledge about different areas of the law and court procedures. It also commands excellent writing skills as clerks draft important legal documents.
Trial court judicial clerks have direct involvement with litigation, and they assist the judge with court proceedings. They manage evidence, interact with courtroom staff, and review briefs submitted by the parties. Other duties include:
- Taking witness statements
- Serving subpoenas
- Acting in a supervisory capacity
- Helping with discovery disputes
Appellate clerks have little involvement with courtroom proceedings. Their main responsibility involves reviewing trial records for error. They research legal matters in civil and criminal appeals and brief the judge on the facts of the case before oral arguments take place. Additional duties include:
- Writing bench memoranda
- Researching applicable laws
- Drafting orders and other legal documents
- Supervising chamber staff
- Making recommendations to the judge regarding the disposition of appeals
Clerks working in specialized courts such as the U.S. Tax Court generally have the same duties and responsibilities as those as serving the trial courts.
Law clerks serve judges one to two years on average before moving on in their careers. In some instances, however, a judge makes the clerk a permanent part of their staff.
Professional Requirements to Become a Law Clerk
The requirements to become a law clerk involve several years of study and experience in the legal industry. To start, individuals must obtain a bachelor’s degree (B.S.), which involves four years of undergraduate study. Law schools do not require a specific degree field, but many students choose political science, history, or English. Students should maintain a high grade-point average in their undergraduate program as law schools only select the best applicants.
During their junior or senior year in the undergraduate program, students apply to law schools and take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). This multiple-choice test assesses reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. The score of this test plays a large part in admission to law school.
Once accepted into law school, students begin working towards their Juris Doctor degree (J.D.). During the first year, students study basic law concepts such as constitutional law and contract law. The following two years involve more specialized studies. After earning their law degree, students must take the bar exam. Some judges hire graduates before they take the bar exam on the condition that they take it by a certain date.
Due to the competitive nature of the position, aspiring law clerks can greatly benefit from participating in internships and clerkships. This provides of the legal experience that the position requires.
Additional Educational Requirements
For additional knowledge and experience in the field of law, students can go on to obtain a Master of Law degree (LL.M.). This degree offers a deeper look into specific areas of the law. While not required, the degree broadens job prospects.
Additional Licensing Requirements
A law clerk job does not require any type of license. However, many start their careers as lawyers, which involves becoming a member of the state bar after passing the bar exam. Each state imposes additional licensing requirements for lawyers, including Continuing Education courses to keep legal professional up-to-date with current laws.
Where Can You Work as a Law Clerk
You have a few different options when it comes to where you can work as a law clerk. You can work on the state level, in a position with a trial court, intermediate appellate court, or the state supreme court. Serving a state court will provide you with a better understanding of state laws. It will also make you a good candidate for a local law firm after your clerkship ends.
On the federal level, you can serve the United States District Courts, the United States Court of Appeals, or specialized courts. Lawyers wishing to pursue a specific field in the future can greatly benefit from serving a specialized court. Of course, the most prestigious clerkship you can get is with the United States Supreme Court. Each of the eight Associated Justices on the Supreme Court can select four law clerks each term. The Chief can have five, but often hires fewer.
How do Law Clerks Get Paid
How law clerks get paid varies depending on the court system employing them. State governments set the salary for clerks and the amount often depends on whether they have passed the state bar. On the federal level, the Judiciary Salary Plan (JSP) outlines the salary coverage for these legal professionals. The hiring judge gives the new clerk a grade based on JSP Qualification Standards, which establishes classification levels. Education and amount of legal experience determine the level the assigned to the clerk.
Generally, judicial clerks receive additional benefits on top of their salaries or hourly pay rate. This includes holiday pay, vacation pay, sick pay, health insurance, and retirement plans.
Law Clerk Salary
The median annual salary for law clerks is $51,330 ($24.68/hr) as of 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) Occupational Outlook Handbook. However, those in judicial law clerk positions may earn upwards of $97,000 per year.
Experience and geographical location both help determine the salary earned. For instance, clerks for the state of New York earn more than those working for local courts in Pennsylvania. A salary gap also exists between federal and state clerkships, with federal positions paying significantly more.
Employment Outlook for Law Clerk
The BLS predicts that the growth rate for legal professionals will increase by around 6% by 2026. This is the average growth rate for employment in the U.S. Due to the prestigious nature of the position, the job market will remain competitive.
How to Get a Job as a Law Clerk
How you get a job as a law clerk varies, depending on the judicial level you wish to work on. If you attend school or recently graduated, check to see what resources your school has available to help you find a job. Some schools have counselors to help connect graduates with employers. You can also check government and employment websites for open positions.
For state courts, you must apply to judges directly. This means mailing or delivering your professional resume to the judicial secretary. For federal clerkships, you must use the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR). This centralized application system makes it easy to apply for the position. It is common practice to apply for a position with each judge in a particular court.
|Degree Level||Doctoral or professional degree|
|Key Skills||Listening, critical thinking, verbal communication, written communication, analytical, researching, observative|
|Number of Jobs (2016)||14,000|
|6% growth rate (much slower than average growth rate)|
|Median Salary (2017)||$51,330*|
|On the Job Training||None|
|Top Earners||Top earners in the field generally work for the United States Supreme Court|
(*Source: the BLS)