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In general, a legal clerk is a person who works in a court, law firm, or government office and assists judges and attorneys with a variety of tasks. Most law clerks either are attorneys themselves or are training to be, and this sets them apart from more general legal secretaries; a secretary might work with a clerk, but would usually perform strictly administrative tasks. Clerks, meanwhile, may do some of those more menial tasks, but are usually also responsible for legal research, brief writing, and sometimes even client interface. In most legal systems, clerkships are designed to be temporary jobs for either new lawyers or law students, and most last from 1-3 years. They’re often very competitive, and can be a great way for young professionals or people new to the field to prove their competency while making valuable connections. There are some circumstances in which people can be hired as clerks on a more or less permanent basis, but this is unusual. It’s much more common for a clerk to be hired on as a full attorney or practicing member of a firm once his or her clerkship appointment is up.
The main idea of a legal clerkship is to provide an apprentice-style experience to trainee lawyers. There are a number of different settings where people with this title might find themselves, but courts are usually some of the most common; particularly in the United States, judges frequently have these positions in order to get help with research and other legal tasks. Justices at both the state and national Supreme Courts frequently hire one or more clerks, as well, and these positions are often quite coveted.
Law firms, particularly those that are smaller or operating on limited budgets, sometimes also hire clerks, and the position is also frequently seen in many governmental offices. Different offices have different hiring policies and practices, but clerks are often students, usually in their second or third year of legal studies; they might also be new graduates. Graduates are often more attractive for work that is full time or very intensive, though many law schools will give students credit for clerkship experience which might enable a full time schedule for a semester or year.
The bulk of most legal clerks’ work centers around legal research. Clerks are often tasked with combing through case law for relevant precedent, and often spend a lot of time analyzing how different courts have handled certain topics. In law firms, they frequently write briefs for lawyers who are preparing to litigate and help bring those lawyers up to speed on the key issues. Those working for judges might give advice on how an opinion should be crafted, and can usually identify the key points that need to be made.
Most of this work is not glamorous, and the clerk almost never receives credit. It is usually seen to be excellent experience, though, and can help season the trainee when it comes to seeing the workings of the legal world first-hand. Many employers value applicants with clerkship experience precisely because of the depth of knowledge most clerks obtain while on the job.
On the administrative end, law clerks do a lot of the same things other administrative assistants do — answering phones, filing documents, and fielding client and prospective client questions, to name a few. A lot of this depends on the setting, and whether or not there is also a full-time legal secretary on staff. Clerks typically need to have exceptional communication and computer skills. They also need to be trustworthy, since much in the practice of law is highly confidential, and should also have meticulous attention to detail since a clerical error could affect the outcome of a case.
Getting Started and Finding Positions
Most courts and firms have a streamlined and systematic process for hiring legal clerks, and in most cases it’s cyclical; applications are accepted at the beginning of each term, once every year, or once every two to three years, depending on need. The specifications can vary a lot when it comes to the sort of education and training required. Some of the most competitive positions require applicants to be within a certain percentage point of the top of their class, academically speaking, and many others require proof of grades at or beyond a certain threshold. Many law schools have special clerkship placement offices to help students and recent graduates who are interested in pursuing this path.