When Stephen Carey L’09 was a student at Penn Law, he heard the buzz about clerking. “Everyone that I talked to who had clerked said that their year (or years) clerking were some of the best of their careers,” he recalled.
Carey took the advice to heart, clerking with both a federal district court in Pennsylvania and a circuit court of appeals in New Mexico. Now he’s part of the buzz: “I had great experiences at both the district court and court of appeals. Both of my judges pushed me to work hard, think carefully and clearly about the law, and made me a better writer. Starting practice now, I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t clerked.”
Carey is not alone; the careers of a sizable and growing cadre of Penn Law graduates begin in judicial chambers at the top levels of the legal profession. Since 2008, graduating Law School students and recent alumni have secured nearly 300 clerkships in judges’ chambers at all levels, including coveted positions with the U.S. Supreme Court in each of the past two years.
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Penn Law students and recent alumni are attaining some of the most sought-after posts with the most respected judges. In 2011-12, for instance, students and alums secured clerkships at all levels of the federal and state judiciaries, as well as posts with the Delaware Chancery Court, a preeminent jurisdiction for business law, and other prestigious specialty courts.
There are at least three reasons for the growing number and diversity of placements: the caliber of Penn Law grads; a faculty, many of whom have clerked themselves, who encourage students to pursue this gateway to their careers and work with them to secure appointments, and an administration committed to supporting students throughout the rigorous application process.
Dean Michael A. Fitts has led a sustained effort both to recommend the value of clerking to students and to insure that they receive the guidance and administrative support they need to secure key appointments through the Law School’s Office of Career Planning & Professionalism (CP&P) and a Clerkship Committee, comprised of faculty and staff.
“No matter what you go on to do, it’s a rewarding experience,” said Fitts, who began his own career as a clerk for Judge Leon Higginbotham on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. “There are almost no jobs left in the world where you can begin your career by working with experts at the top of their profession, learn from them and develop mentoring relationships.”
Law clerks typically research cases before their judge, attend court proceedings, and draft memoranda, orders, or opinions. They are also sounding boards for the judge, as he or she makes decisions. For students just starting their careers, this can all be a heady experience, an up-close-and-personal view of how cases are actually decided.
Former clerks almost uniformly describe their experiences in glowing terms.
Dominic E. Draye, L’09, who clerked in Texas for Judge Edith Jones, Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, is equally enthusiastic about the skills and knowledge he gained. “Anyone who’s done it can tell you that a year of working with an expert judge is a special kind of education,” he said. “Maybe the best analogy is a post-doc in the research sciences: you help an expert do her job, but all the while you grow rich on both technical feedback and substantive education.”
Dean Michael Fitts and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Recently, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor affirmed that judgment. At a Law School convocation in April for the dedication of the new Golkin Hall, Dean Fitts asked Justice Sotomayor to comment, for the benefit of students in the audience, on the value of clerking. She likened a clerkship to a Renaissance apprenticeship, affording students the chance to learn from master practitioners.
“There is no experience right after law school that will teach you more than clerking. You learn more in one year of clerking than you learn in eight years of practice,” she said.
Sotomayor had four pieces of advice for students, based on what she looks for in a law clerk: Get good grades, be able to demonstrate good writing, find a law professor willing to mentor you and help secure an appointment, and differentiate yourself by demonstrating passion. “Involve yourself in something that’s important to you and make a difference,” she said.
Students and recent alums pursuing clerkships are finding success with the Law School’s support. “There is a clerkship for every student who wants one,” said Prof. Christopher S. Yoo, a member/chair of the Clerkship Committee. “It’s just a matter of being smart about how to target them, and that’s what we’re here to help students do.”
“The workshops and informational panels hosted [by CP&P] during the 2L spring semester were great previews to the process,” said Jennifer Wu L’12 a 3L who will be clerking with the Texas Supreme Court. “The support I found from the Penn Law faculty is a testament to our school’s commitment to its students.”
Katherine Meeks L’12
“Students are not anonymous here,” agreed Katherine Meeks L’12, who will be clerking for Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and intends to apply to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We have lots of opportunities to get to know faculty members through clinics, seminars, and work as research assistants. It was those relationships that helped me get my clerkship.”
Dan Gershwin L’12 had a similar experience. “Throughout the process, I enjoyed the support of Chris Fritton in the Career Planning & Professionalism Office, as well as the support of my professors, who wrote recommendations for me,” Gershwin said.
“Each professor made phone calls on my behalf, and I am certain that this extra effort helped me get the interview.” Gershwin will be clerking in Santa Barbara, California, for Judge Ruggero Aldisert, a senior circuit court judge.
Students select the courts and judges with whom they want to work for a variety of reasons. Gershwin became interested in clerking for Judge Aldisert after using his textbook on appellate advocacy. “From his book, I could tell that he had a great legal mind and that I would learn an incredible amount if I were to have the opportunity to clerk with him,” he said.
Julie Goldemberg, a 3L, who plans to practice patent law, will be clerking with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., a special jurisdiction that hears cases on a variety of subjects, including patents. “It is a very unique and prestigious court for my field of law. So I knew I wanted to try to clerk there,” she said.
Haley Bolin Shellito L’12, who will be clerking for Ninth Circuit Court Judge William Fletcher, said she applied for an appellate clerkship because “I’m interested in legal analysis and argument. I decided to clerk in order to learn firsthand from a top legal mind in the country, as well as to continue exploring the American legal system as it is applied.”
Shellito applied to courts all over the country. Other prospective clerks seek appointments in geographic areas where they plan to practice or hope to live.
Place mattered for Evan Smith L’12, who will be clerking for Sixth Circuit Court Judge John Rogers in Kentucky. “My wife and I decided that we wanted to move back to eastern Kentucky where we are both from,” he said. “Geographically this dramatically cut down the number of judges that I was applying to, but then I researched each judge. Judge Rogers had taught law in subjects that I found interesting for most of his career, and I found his opinions to be thorough and well-reasoned. I feel very lucky that I received an offer from my top choice.”
In many cases, clerks establish a close personal and professional mentoring relationship with their judge. Kindl Shin L’09 is currently clerking for Fourth Circuit Court Judge Albert Diaz in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It has been wonderful,” she said. “Judge Diaz is always thoughtful and prepared on the bench and, equally important, he is as thoughtful in chambers. My wedding was only a few months after my clerkship began. We got married on a Friday, and even though Judge Diaz had been sitting in Richmond earlier that morning, he and his wife came to our wedding – and danced!”
For current students or recent grads considering a clerkship, Jennifer Wu, the 3L who will be clerking with the Texas Supreme Court, had this advice: “Apply! Do not be deterred by the seeming logistical hurdles of the application process – if you wish to apply, the faculty and staff at Penn Law will help and support you.”