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QUESTION: I am thinking about clerking after law school, but I would like to begin at a firm, to make some money and get some initial experience. Is it possible to get a judicial clerkship later, with the aim of coming back to the firm? ANSWER: A judicial clerkship can be an extremely rewarding and insight-provoking part of your career. Yet a clerkship, like any other career choice, is a matter of trade-offs. The question, as with all career choices, is the balance of benefits (and limitations) of one choice, versus any other choices. Most clerkships offer unique opportunities for learning about the legal system (and the process of judging), while at the same time gaining experience in writing and factual/legal analysis that can be invaluable later in a career. The clerk/judge relationship, moreover, is often one of mentee/mentor, which can also be a great benefit to a career. Most clerkships, moreover, offer the chance to perform relatively high-level functions at an early point in a career, to see a variety of lawyering styles in action, and to provide useful public service. The burdens of a clerkship, for many, are relatively light by comparison. Clerks are often paid much less than full-time lawyers. Some clerkships are available only in out-of-the-way locations. Moreover, not all clerkships offer the prestige and career enhancement of other clerkships. With the exercise of good judgment, however, most clerkships should be quite rewarding, and any low pay and life-style limitations only temporary problems. We come, then, to the question of timing. Most students take judicial clerkships directly out of law school. Clerkships can last one or two years (sometimes longer, when students take multiple clerkships, in series). Typically, the clerkship period represents a transition, from law school to the full-time practice of law, where a student gains valuable skills and experiences, leading to the next phase of his/her career. Most law firms accept clerks as full-time lawyers, after such a transitional period, with the understanding that the clerks’ unique background should permit them to become integrated quickly into the firm’s practice, even though the clerk may have missed a year or two of early experiences at the firm. Indeed, many law firms pay signing bonuses to clerks, based on the assumption that a clerk’s unique background can be particularly valuable. Those assumptions may be somewhat undermined, in the case of a junior lawyer who begins work at a firm, only to leave for a clerkship, after some period of time. The junior lawyer in that circumstance would begin to build relationships and reputation within the firm, only to break off that path to pursue the clerkship. Unless the clerkship were relatively short (less than a year–not the norm), and/or the clerk took special steps to keep in touch with the firm (also not easy to do), most clerks in such a situation would suffer something of the “out of sight, out of mind” effect of leaving the firm. In essence, if the clerk were to return to the firm after such a clerkship, the reentry to the firm would become a near “do over.” The clerk would have to reacquaint himself/herself with the firm, and vice versa. None of that is to say that deferring a clerkship is impossible. Some students prefer to defer the clerkship for the reasons you outline. Others simply apply late, or discover a clerkship opportunity only after they have started working. If the clerkship is valuable to you, then it should not matter greatly when you take advantage of the opportunity. Steven C. Bennett, a partner at Jones Day and author of The Path to Partnership: A Guide for Junior Associates, will reply to your questions about law firm life and career issues in this space every month. Submit your question.

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