When Yale Law School students graduate, they often have myriad job offers from law firms, non-profit groups and corporations awaiting them. But approximately 40 percent of students in each graduating class spend their first year after graduation working for a judge in a clerkship, according to statistics provided by the Law School’s Career Development Office.
Students in the Law School’s Class of 2004 will clerk in federal and state courts around the country and even abroad. Some say they hope a clerkship will provide practical legal training and experience, while others see their clerkships as opportunities to make connections and meet people who might be helpful in future careers.
The Law School encourages its students to pursue clerkships with the federal judiciary, Thomas Saunders LAW ’04, who will work for Judge Pierre Leval of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, said.
“I think that Yale Law School certainly steers you towards doing circuit court clerkships with prestigious judges in big cities,” Saunders said.
Students from the Law School often apply for such clerkships in part because the school’s graduates have traditionally had good luck in obtaining these positions, Saunders said.
“Yale students do phenomenally well,” Saunders said. “I think people are more likely to apply because they feel they have a good shot.”
Elizabeth Brundige ’98 LAW ’03, who is currently clerking for Judge Kermit V. Lipez of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals at his chambers in Portland, Maine, said clerks have no standard work.
“Clerkships are all different — it depends a lot on the particular judge,” Brundige said. “The bulk of our time is spent researching and writing opinions.”
Clerks often write first drafts of judicial opinions, and then work together with the judges to produce the final opinions, Brundige said.
Some students, such as Michael Newman LAW ’04, said the Law School puts too much emphasis on graduates working in federal clerkships. Newman, who said he is considering a career as a state prosecutor, plans to work for Judge Daniel Barker in the Arizona Court of Appeals.
“There’s a really heavy bias here at Yale towards federal stuff, but I’m more interested in state-level stuff,” Barker said. “Yale doesn’t really give you any information on state courts — it’s sort of a crapshoot.”
In the United States, a law student is not eligible to clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court until he or she has held another clerkship. But Richard Albert ’00 LAW ’03 took advantage of the absence of such restrictions in Canada — he is now clerking for Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Canadian Supreme Court.
Since McLachlin is second in line to succeed the Canadian Prime Minister in case of a tragedy, Albert said he has responsibilities in addition to the standard clerking duties.
“She has a ceremonial role and in that capacity I help her with speeches,” Albert said.
But Albert said clerks for U.S. Supreme Court justices also have duties which he does not have, including reading petitions from death row prisoners up to the day before their executions are scheduled.
Canada does not have a death penalty.
Saunders said a judge’s political orientation plays a role in students’ decisions about where to work, but that often the choice comes down to having “a good personality match.”
“The reality is that the vast majority of cases will have no political slant,” Saunders said. “In terms of figuring out a judge’s politics, all you have is a judge’s reputation and the president who appointed them, so it’s tricky.”
The legal experience gained clerking would be valuable in almost any legal career, students agreed.
“One thing for certain is that the analytical skills you cultivate here will help you later in life,” Albert said.