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Clerkships are court-related jobs available at both the state and federal court levels, with federal clerkships offering a great deal of prestige. Positions at the federal and state levels can be with a supreme court, a trial court or an appellate court. Magistrates and specialized courts also have positions for clerks. Local positions also are available for those who want to practice law in a particular area.
The most prestigious clerkship in the United States is one with the U.S. Supreme Court. At this level, clerks work closely with a judge to check decisions that were made by lower courts. These cases are normally those that make national news. A well-handled clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court can practically let a clerk choose his next career step, which may include a position with a prestigious law firm. A majority of those who take clerkships with the U.S. Supreme Court were top students at their law schools, and they often become professors after the clerkship ends.
A federal appellate court, also called a circuit court, offers a clerkship that can be used as a stepping stone for a law clerk hoping to move up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Clerks at this level work with judges to review the opinions of the federal district courts and may help judges by drafting opinions or bench memorandum. The work is mainly research, and clerks rarely go to court. Many federal appellate court clerks practice law after their clerkship ends, but some become law professors or go on to other government work.
U.S. federal district court clerkships, also called trial court clerkships, expose a law clerk to federal criminal trials, discovery disputes and oral arguments. The advantage of this type of judicial clerkship is that a clerk is exposed to actual trials, providing valuable experience for both law school and private practice. Clerks do a great deal of legal research and are often assigned many cases, because a judge typically may have two clerks and a few hundred cases. Clerks frequently get to know the jurisdiction's attorneys and usually become lawyers in a nearby firm after the clerkship ends.
In magistrate courts, clerks help judges work on the cases for which the judge doesn't have much time. A clerk may work with the judge and attorneys during the discovery phase — when evidence is being found — until the actual trial occurs. Arraignments also are handled by magistrate courts.
Specialized courts offer valuable training to law students who wish to pursue a career in a field such as tax law. Clerkships with federal tax or bankruptcy courts, for example, give the specialized training needed for lawyers who want to go into tax or bankruptcy law. Specialized courts only focus on one aspect of the law, so clerks need to make sure they are interested in that area before committing to such a clerkship.
The same types of courts are available at the state level but do not offer law clerks the same level of prestige. If a law student is planning to practice in one area of the country, such as only in his home state, then a clerkship with a state court will provide experience with that state's specific laws and procedures. Most clerkships in the United States are at the state level and expose law clerks to a variety of cases, because state courts are not as specialized as federal courts.
A clerkship in a local court, such as in a small town or a clerk's home county, can be good preparation for practice in such areas as juvenile and family law. At this level, many states refer to law clerks as staff attorneys and the clerks may need to pass the bar exam before filling the position. The advantage of being a local clerk is that there is a regular schedule and the chance to meet with people who may help once the clerk becomes a full-fledged lawyer.