It’s difficult to identify too many major career mistakes when you’re a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, as Sonia Sotomayor explained to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania on April 5.

But the justice offered one decision that she regrets to this day: Forgoing a clerkship right out of law school, against the advice of a mentor. At the time, the low pay that clerks received swayed her away from that option. (Sotomayor graduated in 1979 from Yale Law School. Even today, federal clerks earn about $60,000 — far less than most law firms will pay a bright young law school grad.)

“The reason you do it is because there is no experience right out of law school that will teach you more about the practice of law than clerking,” Sotomayor said.

Clerks gain exposure to many different legal issues and processes, she said. “You learn more in one year of clerking that you do in eight years of practice.”

Perhaps even more important, clerks establish a mentor relationship with a judge comparable to an apprenticeship, Sotomayor said. She urged students to look past the low pay to the lifelong benefits of clerking, even if they are staring down substantial law school debt.

“I made a bad choice,” Sotomayor said. “I tell virtually every law student I meet, ‘Don’t follow what I did.’ “

It appears that many law students have already taken that message to heart. Most state and federal judges already receive many more applications from clerk hopefuls than they can hire.

Sotomayor advised students to get good grades, be sure to have some legal writing experience, and to find a mentor at their law schools who can advocate on their behalf. Finally, Sotomayor said, students should “do something meaningful.” It doesn’t matter to her what applicants for clerkships were involved in, as long as they made a difference, she said.

Sotomayor was at Penn for the dedication of the law school’s Golkin Hall, a $33.5 million building that is one of the final pieces of a 10-year refurbishment of the campus. The project will be complete once work wraps up on a number of existing classrooms and offices.

Our sibling publication, The Legal Intelligencer, covered Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s remarks in detail.

The 40,000-square foot Golkin Hall includes classrooms, an auditorium that seats 350 people, a moot court room, a student lounge plus administrative and faculty offices.

The law school made a concerted effort to include open space that would promote collaboration not only between law students and law faculty, but also between students and faculty from other academic disciplines. Interdisciplinary study has been a hallmark of Michael Fitt’s 11-year tenure as dean, and the new building has multiple bridges as passageways to other buildings.

“That is important because it’s a symbolic and practical reflection of how law is and how it should be,” Fitts said.

Golkin Hall was funded entirely through donations and was named for donors Perry and Donna Golkin. Perry Golkin, an alumnus and sometime lecturer at the school, is a member of private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

The three-story building replaced an existing one-story structure that housed one classroom and the offices of the deans, said Jo-Ann Verrier, vice dean for administrative services. The law school faculty has grown by almost 50 percent during the past decade, necessitating more office space, she said.

The new building was designed to maximize exposure to natural light and to be energy efficient. It has green roofs — covered with plants that absorb rainwater — as well as two roof decks featuring benches for students and faculty. Construction began in May 2010.

In addition to Golkin Hall, the law school has spent $18 million on renovations and improvements to its other three buildings, including the 110-year old Silverman Hall.

During a dedication ceremony, Fitts and Sotomayor held a question-and-answer session focused on Sotomayor’s career and impressions of legal education. The conversation never drifted toward the legal challenge to the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, which the court heard arguments about for three consecutive days the previous week. However, when a Penn law student asked Sotomayor what role the court should play in educating the public about the issues of the day, the justice replied that the public often doesn’t understand that judges do not play the same role as politicians.

Judges can’t participate in back-and-forth conversations with members of the public about current affairs, as an elected official would, she said. “We can’t engage the public in a seminar about health law.”

Rather, the proper public role for the justices is to teach the pubic the role the court plays in the larger functioning of government — something Sotomayor said she and her colleagues on the court do quite often.

“We participate publicly, just not in the way the public would like us to,” she said.

Sotomayor also commented on her February appearance on the popular children’s show Sesame Street, where she ruled in the case of Goldilocks v. Baby Bear. (Goldilocks had to help Baby Bear repair the chair she broke.)

“You don’t know how hard it is to explain to a child what a judge does,” she told the crowd at Penn.

Contact Karen Sloan at