Others land White House fellowships, Bristow fellowships in the solicitor general’s office or similar prestigious positions in executive branch agencies.
But when it comes to Congress–the body tasked with creating laws–there is no formal program to place newly minted lawyers in the offices of committees and lawmakers.
Legal educators, law students and politicians gathered in Washington in April to discuss filling that gap by creating a congressional clerkship program. The idea is that young lawyers would spend a year researching and drafting laws before moving on to other legal endeavors.
The idea isn’t exactly new. Stanford University Law School Law Dean Larry Kramer floated the concept among his fellow deans in 2005, and legislation to create the clerkships has twice cleared the House of Representatives only to die in the Senate. But advocates think the time is right to renew the push for legislative clerks.
The benefits are threefold, said Georgetown University law professor Dakota Rudesill, who is spearheading the effort. First, Congress would get whip-smart law graduates with a keener understanding of the law than a typical Capitol Hill intern or low-level staffers. Second, bright young lawyers would spend a transformative year learning the ins and outs of creating law. Third, by going on to influential positions at law firms and legal organizations, former legislative clerks would help change the perception among lawyers and the public that courts are the most important lawmaking body.
“The legal profession as such is extremely court-centered,” Kramer said. “One of the reasons for that, I think, is that court clerkships are the first job out the door for many graduates of the best law schools in the country. They move on and become leaders in the profession, and it’s incredible the extent to which that first job shapes their thinking and understanding about the profession.”
Advocates of congressional clerkships are dreaming big, but starting small. The Daniel Webster Congressional Clerkship Act of 2011, a bill introduced in April by U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), would create a pilot program with 12 clerks. The Committee on Rules and Administration of the Senate and the House Committee on House Administration would select clerks from a centralized pool. Each chamber would get six clerks, to be divided between the parties.
Legislators and committee would compete for the clerks by offering the most attractive type of work. The clerks would choose where they want to spend their year.
Keeping the pilot program small will help ensure that competition for clerk spots is stiff, said Yale Law School professor Bill Eskridge, a leading authority on the legislative process. The plan will have succeeded, he said, if the congressional clerkships carry prestige equal to that accorded to federal court clerkships. The long-term plans calls for the program to expand after the pilot phase.
Supporters acknowledge that getting the bill passed during this legislative session may be difficult, given that Congress in budget-cutting mode. The cost of the pilot program is relatively small–about $1 million per year, with clerks earning the same salary as clerks in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia–but the cost has been a hurdle in the past.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has sponsored the bill in the Senate, but its chances would be greater with a Republican co-sponsor and a plan to offset the cost, Rudesill said.
Georgetown University Law Center isn’t waiting for Congress to get on board. Dean William Treanor announced in April that the school would independently finance two year-long congressional clerk positions for recent graduates at as cost of about $100,000.
“The idea is that these clerks will illustrate why a congressional clerkship program is a good idea,” Treanor said. “They will be the craftspeople who ensure that legislation is as strong as it can be and make sure the legislation does what it is intended to do.”
Treanor hopes other top law schools follow suit and finance congressional clerkships in order to help build the case for a formalized program.
For Kramer, it’s just a matter of time before Congress comes around.
“This Congress, they’re not spending a whole lot of money,” he said. “But I think the success is eventual. It’s just a small, good-government measure. We just have to stick with it and wait for that moment when the stars align. It’s kind of beyond me why nobody thought of this before.”
Karen Sloan can be contacted at email@example.com.