Reflecting on my time at Villanova Law, it was the opportunities to intern or clerk in law firms or pro bono organizations that were particularly memorable. The day to day of the classrooms and textbooks can sometimes feel monotonous. A clerkship transports you from the fantasy of practicing law to the real-world environment of working closely with attorneys and clients.
One of the most meaningful programs I participated in during all three years of law school was focused on Social Security Disability law. This experience guided me on a path that led me to becoming a partner at the largest workers’ compensation and disability law firm in Pennsylvania.
By the summer of 1L or 2L year, law students have likely received a good amount of advice from attorneys in the field. Given my personal journey and role today at Pond Lehocky Giordano assisting with the training of our clerks, I’d be remiss if I did not share my five tips for having a successful clerkship.
Prioritize substance over speed
As a law clerk, you will rarely be asked to handle a truly time-sensitive assignment. Therefore, your primary focus should be accuracy. There is nothing more essential to making your case that you would be a successful hire for the firm than putting in the effort to learn the material you are working on and establishing your ability to follow directives. Poor work product will result in someone else within the organization having to correct your work or losing future opportunities to work with certain attorneys.
Once you have a handle on the subject matter and the work that is being assigned to you, you should begin thinking about your pace. One way to approach this is by asking your supervisor how much time is typically spent on specific assignments and compare that to your personal productivity. Reflect on your own process and whether something is slowing you down or feels not clear.
There are pros and cons to speed, however at this stage in your career, done right is better than done fast.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
This leads to my next point: ask questions. The key to completing your assignments on time is avoiding poking around in the dark. Nuance is everything in law. There is nothing more defeating than spending hours on an assignment but approaching it from the wrong direction or misunderstanding the objective.
When training law clerks, I always appreciate those who actively engage in the conversations that we have regarding assignments and take thorough notes. If you pay attention and write things down, you can save yourself from asking questions that were already answered.
That said, never apologize for requesting additional information to confirm you are on the right path. Your supervisor will appreciate your assertiveness and comfort with communication. Don’t forget that all supervisors started in less senior roles, asking similar questions.
By the way, I continue to ask my supervisors questions about assignments all the time.
Attitude is everything
Work will always be work. Some assignments might feel daunting, some straightforward, and others more interesting and exciting. However, your position as a law clerk isn’t simply to receive and complete assignments robotically.
Being a law clerk means that you are on the field with a coach. At law school, you are rarely given detailed feedback. Your professor is overseeing many other students and may not feel as invested in your personal performance. However, your clerkship is a unique moment where an experienced attorney is watching you individually. Seek feedback and don’t feel discouraged by it. Thoughtful feedback from supervisors will help you improve your analytical skills and knowledge of the law.
Taking it one step further, being a law clerk invites you to shadow a day in the life of attorneys, paralegals, and possibly judges. Be curious. Learn how the paralegals prepare and file documents for court. Observe how the attorneys handle client calls. Attend court and see how judges conduct their courtrooms. You will get a lot more out of your clerkship if you arrive hungry to embrace every minute you are a thread in the fabric of the firm.
Begin creating a network that could last decades
Meet as many people as you can – not just your fellow clerks or junior lawyers. Ask senior lawyers and partners to coffee or lunch to pick their brains. Attend your organization’s social events and introduce people to more than just your work ethic.
There is no better recipe in life for furthering your professional success than building relationships. Everybody knows somebody, and a favorable recommendation, referral, or reference could go a long way.
An attorney you had coffee with could refer you a career-making case down the road or recommend you for your dream legal job after law school. Plus, building relationships within the organization is a great way to position yourself as a clerk deserving of a full-time position after graduating law school.
Spend time learning the business of law
As a law clerk, you earn the opportunity to observe the inner operations of your organization, the distinct departments, and how each one is led. A law firm is a business. It cannot thrive without happy clients, happy employees, strategizing, and constant innovation.
Who are the clients of the firm? What are the avenues in which the firm finds and retains those clients? Many law firms utilize social media to attract business. However, on a more intimate level, attorneys routinely partake in speaking engagements, attend events, and schedule meals with prospective referral sources. Begin brainstorming now about how you will contribute to the longevity of a firm.
If you’re clerking in a corporate legal department or nonprofit organization, these questions may change a bit. However, for-profit and non-profit organizations require revenue or donations to operate. Understanding how your employer brings in that revenue or those donations, as well as the connection between these sources of income and the work you’re doing, will give you a leg up on your peers.
Finally, learn the company’s core values. Try to get a feel for the culture of the institution and what truly matters to its people. Do the employees come to work out of a sense of obligation, or do they seem to enjoy being there? How is the firm investing in its own people? Most importantly, can you envision your future there?
Enjoy your clerkship, but don’t forget why you’re there
For law students, summer clerkships can feel like a welcomed vacation from law school. That feeling is often aided by employers sponsoring extracurricular activities and events during the summer to give clerks ways to connect with their colleagues in relaxed and fun settings.
Enjoy your clerkship but don’t forget the primary reasons that you are there. I am hopeful that these five tips will help you to maximize your clerkship experience and better position you for an exciting career in law.
Kajal Alemo is a partner in the workers’ compensation practice at Pond Lehocky Giordano LLP. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from the July 7, 2022 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or email@example.com.