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If each time you enter a courtroom you look with envy at the judicial law clerks, realize that it is not too late to join their ranks. Each year an increasing number of judicial clerkships are being filled by experienced lawyers. The traditional model for hiring law clerks has been for applicants to apply while in their second year of law school. But judges are gradually beginning to adjust this model, and many now hold open at least one position for an experienced lawyer. They have found that having an experienced attorney as a clerk is helpful in both reducing training time and adding a professional maturity to chambers. The reasons experienced attorneys apply for clerkships are varied. Some are encouraged by firms to gain experience that will help the firm’s litigation department. Others use a clerkship as a transition to a career change. PROS AND CONS Pros: Many former clerks describe a clerkship as a unique opportunity to learn about judicial decision-making, enhance career opportunities and expand geographic mobility; it also provides the opportunity to absorb a great deal of law in a short time and to see how the law is applied in a generic way. Cons: Clerking is not for everyone. It means interrupting a career path; taking, in most cases, a salary cut; and in many cases derailing a partnership for the short term. It may mean that, while waiting for a clerkship to begin, choice assignments would be given to others; and the decision to clerk may be seen as a means to leaving the job or might indicate a lack of commitment to the firm. STRATEGIES Once the decision is made to apply for a clerkship, it is important to determine your firm’s policy on clerkships. If the firm, like most, values the experience that a clerkship provides, it will be supportive of an associate’s interest in applying. But firms differ in their attitude, and it can often be difficult to determine how the news will be dealt with by both partners and associates. The best approach is to discuss the matter with a supportive partner and possibly use that partner as a reference, while at all times trying to maintain confidentiality throughout the process. Realize that the clerkship market is very competitive, with most judges receiving hundreds of applications and often interviewing only 10 to 12 candidates. Factor in the realization that once you interview and obtain an offer, judges will expect an answer within a few days of the offer. Another aspect of this process that will be difficult for experienced attorneys is the conflicts issue. This needs to be addressed early in the application process, particularly if applications are going to judges in a jurisdiction where attorneys from the firm practice. SALARY Salaries are always a consideration when moving from the private to the public sector. With firm salaries increasing during the past few years, the gap has widened substantially. A federal judicial clerkship salary is determined by a standard U.S. government pay scale. Salaries can range from $54,000 to $71,000, plus benefits, after one year out of law school, depending upon the individual’s level of experience and previous salary. (New law school graduates start at $45,000.) When applying for a clerkship, basically two timetables can be followed: filling a current opening or filling a traditional slot that comes open in the fall of each year when law students apply. While the latter means you are competing directly with current law students and provides you with wide access to many opportunities, the term will not begin until the fall a year from the date of the application. Concerning the application package, it’s not much different for an experienced lawyer than it is for a student, consisting of a cover letter, resume, writing sample, two letters of reference and a law school transcript. References are often the most crucial part of the application. If the applicant is not a recent law school graduate, it is best to ask an attorney who can evaluate the applicant’s recent work product. LEAVING THE FIRM Once a clerkship offer has been accepted, be sure not to burn any bridges with your present employer when giving notice. Allow as much time as possible and be prepared to discuss post-clerkship options, including your intention to return to the firm after the clerkship. It is in everyone’s best interest to make the transition a smooth one for the firm, the court and the individual involved. Ellen Wayne is dean of career services at Columbia University Law School.

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