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How clerkships prepared Brandon Harper L’14 for life as a litigator

September 20, 2019

By clerking for judges at both the federal District Court and Circuit Court of Appeals levels, Brandon Harper L’14 was able to bring the best of both experiences to his work as a litigator in private practice. After graduating from Penn Law in 2014, Harper clerked first for Judge Raymond A. Jackson in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, and then for Judge Karen Nelson Moore on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I wanted to start my career with an understanding of how judges and courts think and operate,” said Harper. “I knew when I came to law school that I wanted to be a litigator, so it was important to me that I had a clear understanding of what happens behind the bench so that when it came time to represent clients, I could help them formulate coherent and persuasive arguments that would be appealing to judges. For me, clerking was the best way to get that exposure.”

His district court clerkship offered the opportunity to observe and work on a wide range of trials. Known as the “Rocket Docket,” the Eastern District of Virginia is among the fastest federal courts in the country, moving cases from filing to trial with unusual speed.

“As a law clerk, working on a trial means preparing for trial with the same seriousness and depth of the litigators, listening to every piece of testimony, making notes for the judge, participating in bench conferences or sidebars, helping the judge research legal issues quickly to decide how to rule on objections or motions in limine, working with the judge on the jury instructions, and working to parse through the verdict and handle any post-trial briefing or motions,” said Harper.

Balancing trials with the other day to day tasks of the district court — plea hearings, sentencings, supervised release hearings, researching and resolving motions – along with research and writing, gave Harper a window into what life would be life as a practicing lawyer.

“The pace of the district court is so fast that it was the best preparation that I could have had for what my life is like now as a litigator,” he said. “Every day is different, you are expected to juggle a lot of balls at the same time, and your plate is constantly full.”

For example, during his district court clerkship, “I’d look at the calendar and maybe I’d have a supervised release hearing or a sentencing and a motion hearing, and that could all be upended because an assistant U.S. Attorney comes in with a search warrant application and they need a decision quickly, or they present a sealed indictment and we have to move quickly on issues related to that matter.”

In contrast, at the Court of Appeals level, “it’s almost like a continuation of law school. You are in chambers working on drafting memos or analyses for the judge, and you’re generally not interrupted so you and the Judge can set and often stick to the schedule.”

While the Court of Appeals meant a slower pace, it sometimes offered Harper the chance to grapple with more complex issues.

“Often, the issues are the little bit trickier [than those in District Court] because these are cases that have been appealed, and with cases set for oral argument, they’re the ones that the judges believe are significant. They’re the more complex issues that don’t have easy solutions,” he said. Importantly, thanks to the measured pace, “clerks really have time to think about issues and ask not just, ‘What is the law?’ but ‘Is this really the approach compelled by precedent?’ You also have more time to talk to the judge and your co-clerks.”

The training Harper received in his clerkships has been an asset at O’Melveny & Meyers LLP, where he has been a litigation associate for about two years.

“Clients like having law clerks on cases because they trust that you’re going to make sound arguments, and that you won’t make strategic moves that will upset a judge or frustrate the process,” he said. His experience has also opened doors in his current practice: he was recently given the opportunity to handle a pro bono federal appeal, taking the lead on managing the briefing process under the supervision of a partner.

In addition to the experience, Harper cites the relationships developed while clerking as especially valuable.

“In addition to have the Penn Law network, you have another network of legal professionals you can lean on and trust,” he said. “As you grow and progress in your career, so too will your co-clerks.”