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Ten years of teaching law to earnest first-year students, admittedly less enthusiastic second-year students, and anxious third-year students facing the bar exam! After a decade behind the lectern, I finally felt confident about what I was doing with my J.D. Then everything in my career suddenly turned upside down. One of my students dared me to abandon the sanctuary of the classroom and to put myself in the place of a student seeking a summer job. I can never resist a challenge, and I decided to go for it. After all, I had sent hundreds of students off into the real world, so why not try it myself? I assembled a cover letter, resume, and writing sample, which proved to be much more time consuming than I expected. A judge was kind enough (or possibly just amused enough) to accept my application for a summer judicial externship. Along with about a dozen of my own first-year students who were also working at the U.S. District Court for Northern California, I was off and running — well, make that crawling. As most of you have long suspected, the world is a safer place when full-time law professors stay in the classroom and do not attempt to put legal theory into practice. Once I started working for the judge, all my abstract notions about contracts and remedies entered into a high-stakes face off with the practical realities of reviewing unfamiliar motions, composing opinion memos in areas of law that I never even knew existed, and drafting orders on instruction from the judge. In a U.S. District Court, I did daily combat with the imperial overlord of all federal litigation — limited jurisdiction — and his ever diligent commander, the deadline. These concepts rarely, if ever, entered my lesson plans or assignments in the law school setting. Working in the court forced me to flee the abstractions of law and to understand the effect of my conclusions on the lives of the people involved. I was, in spite of myself, becoming a real lawyer. The clerks and externs with whom I worked loved to second-guess the motives behind the pleadings and papers filed with the court. Was this motion a delay tactic? A means of intimidation? An effort to narrow the scope of litigation? An attempt to force settlement in a civil dispute or a plea in the criminal context? Some of the pleadings looked appalling by my academic standards, but I soon learned that many attorneys have an impressive mastery of a complex area of law even if they have no patience for Bluebook window dressing (or grammar and spelling, for that matter). Luckily, the judge was much more concerned with the merits of the arguments than the appearance of the papers or the courtroom style of the attorney. No Richter scale has been invented for measuring jolts to the ego suffered by aspiring attorneys when a supervising attorney reviews their work. Any false confidence I may have had before starting the externship was immediately offset by the powerful dose of humility I experienced when my first memo came back covered with diplomatic “suggestions” from the judge and law clerks for “alternative approaches.” I soon realized that the court needed an answer and not an intellectual treatise. I like to set manageable goals for myself, so I focused on mastering new areas of law more efficiently and writing more concisely. I reconciled myself to the fact that my years of teaching gave me no edge whatsoever. Like my students, I had to learn virtually everything from scratch. By the end of the summer, I was writing in the style the judge needed — and then, of course, I had to readjust to academic writing when I began to teach again in the fall. Despite having to withstand periodic assaults on my self-esteem, I loved the externship — so much, in fact, that I decided to take a self-imposed sabbatical from full-time teaching and clerk for a U.S. District Court judge this academic year. There has been much discussion in pedagogical circles about the importance of providing law students with clinical training in addition to the standard course work. My summer experience convinced me that legal education would benefit greatly if law professors were also required to work in the field, perhaps as a condition of tenure. But that’s the subject of another column! Lois Schwartz is spending the academic year as a law clerk for D. Lowell Jensen in the U.S. District Court for Northern California. She is also an adjunct professor at Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate Law School.

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