OFF THE RECORD - Seton Hall Law

State Court Judicial Clerkships - The Next Step for You?

Posted by Denis McLaughlin on 12/22/16 11:19 AM

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Although everyone is aware of the benefits of clerking for a federal judge, too many students overlook the tremendous opportunity of being a clerk in the New Jersey state courts. First, the opportunities for a judicial clerkship are plentiful, with over 400 trial and appellate Superior Court judges in New Jersey compared to just 35 federal district court and magistrate judges in New Jersey. 

Moreover, in terms of practical benefit to a young attorney interested in pursuing a litigation practice, exposure to the state court system is vital given that the average New Jersey attorney files the vast majority of his/her court cases in state, not federal, court. Even attorneys aiming for a career in transactional work will find this to be a first-rate learning experience that will easily translate to different practice settings.

Another important consideration is the nature of private practice in New Jersey. Based on the 2015 statistics from the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, 31% of attorneys engaged in the private practice of law practice as solo practitioners and an additional 9% practice in a law firm of just two attorneys. In total, 64% of New Jersey attorneys engaged in private practice listed themselves as practicing in a law firm of 10 or fewer attorneys, and for those in such settings a clerkship experience is extremely important.

Unlike the larger firms, which because of their size can bring new associates along more slowly, new associates in smaller firms are given caseload responsibility much earlier, sometimes from day one. Furthermore, smaller firms simply do not have the ability to do extensive, in-house training for new associates and therefore many of these firms highly prefer, and even require, a clerkship prior to hiring a new associate.

Of course, the state system has its own pecking order, and clerking for one of the seven justices of the New Jersey Supreme Court or one of the 32 Appellate Division Judges is not only highly prestigious but provides an experience second to none in developing your research and writing skills. As important, you will be mentored one-on-one by an experienced, respected jurist and will learn lessons that will stay with you throughout your legal career.

But this hardly covers the universe of state court clerkship opportunities, and in terms of practical courtroom experience, nothing compares to a trial-level clerkship. You will interact with attorneys, jurors, and witnesses while participating in the full litigation process from complaints and motions, to settlement conferences and hearings, to jury selection and summations. The opportunity to witness first-hand the full gamut of courtroom practice and procedure is simply invaluable to any attorney who wishes to enter a litigation practice. A young attorney clerking in the trial court can acquire more litigation experience in one year than an associate in a large law firm may acquire in five years.

Also, as every attorney knows, there is no substitute for winning at the trial court level. That is because so few cases are ever overturned on appeal. In the federal system, fewer than 15% of all cases are reversed, and at the state level the number is about 25-30%. Given this reality, the more you can learn about the intricacies of the litigation process in the trial court the better.

Whatever level of clerkship you decide to pursue, state or federal, trial or appellate, you will, like thousands of clerks before you, remember your clerkship as one of the most valuable and enjoyable experiences of your legal career.

Talk to someone in our Office of Career Services today about the judicial clerkship opportunities available to you.  Already have an interview? Read this for tips on turning it into a job offer.

Topics: Internships/Jobs, Advice and Tips, Student Life, Experiential Learning