What Does a Law Clerk Do?
Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More
Law clerks (not to be confused with deputy court clerks) assist judges in making informed legal decisions. Contrary to the job title, law clerks perform very few clerical duties. They're sometimes highly skilled lawyers who serve in one of the most prestigious and sought-after positions in the legal industry, but more often they're fresh out of law school after graduating at the top of their class. It can depend on the customs of the state and the court.
Most judicial law clerks complete a one- to a two-year clerkship with a judge after completing law school. Some judges employ experienced law clerks as permanent members of their staffs.
Law Clerk Duties & Responsibilities
As part of their day's regular duties and tasks, a law clerk may perform some or all of the following:
- Research the relevant legal materials and information to aid in making decisions.
- Speak with various court staff to understand and clarify information.
- Prepare the documentation of legal proceedings.
- Prepare various legal documents.
- Perform research and identify implications for cases from legal precedents or other legal information.
Law clerks tend to have a great deal of power because they make recommendations regarding the disposition of cases and appeals and can heavily influence a judge’s decision based on their research. Law clerks also significantly contribute to the formation of new case law because of their contributions to judges' rulings.
Trial Court Law Clerks
Law clerks at the trial court level often are involved in the litigation process if they've passed the bar. They assist the judge in courtroom proceedings, manage exhibits submitted into evidence, and interact with chambers staff, court personnel, litigants, and the public.
Trial court law clerks often assist the judge with settlement conferences and discovery disputes. They review briefs submitted by the parties to trial proceedings, verify cited legal authority, perform legal research, and draft a variety of legal documents including memoranda and orders.
They might take witness statements, and serve subpoenas. They sometimes act in a supervisory capacity over other chambers staff. They more or less catch all the tasks that judges don't have sufficient time for or aren't inclined to handle themselves.
Appellate Law Clerks
Appellate law clerks research and analyze complex legal issues in civil and criminal appeals. They also brief the judge and legal staff on the facts and issues of a particular case prior to oral argument. They'll often assist at judicial proceedings, but they can't play an active role in this regard until they've passed the bar exam.
These clerks research and write bench memoranda, orders, opinions, and other legal documents. Other duties might include maintaining the chambers library and supervising chambers staff.
Law Clerk Salary
Salaries vary depending on the clerk's experience, whether they've yet been admitted to the bar, locality pay adjustments, and the type of clerk position—whether it's career, term, or temporary. Some state courts historically pay more than others, including New York, Connecticut, West Virginia, Illinois, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Nevada, and Washington.
A significant difference in pay exists between state and federal law clerks. Federal clerkships are the highest paying and most competitive positions.
As an example, judicial law clerk salaries fall within the following range:
- Median Annual Salary: $51,330 ($24.68/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $97,230 ($46.75/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $32,990 ($15.86/hour)
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
Education, Training, & Certification
The law clerk position involves fulfilling education and training requirements as follows:
- Education: Candidates must have completed an undergraduate degree and a law degree. Because of the academic nature of the work and the prestige associated with clerkship positions, superior academic credentials often are a prerequisite to employment. This means top grades, law review, and other academic distinctions.
- Experience: Many judges prefer law clerks with law review or moot court experience, and they often tend to favor those who show promise to go on and achieve remarkable things in the field of law. Many graduates serve as law clerks while studying for the bar exam.
Law Clerk Skills & Competencies
In addition to education and other requirements, candidates that possess the following skills may be able to perform more successfully in the job. Judicial clerkships are highly research- and writing-intensive positions.
- Superior writing skills: These are necessary to draft concise, well-researched opinions, bench memoranda, and other legal documents.
- Excellent research skills: Research skills and the ability to assimilate complex case and statutory law are essential.
- Legal knowledge: Solid knowledge of diverse areas of the law, court procedures, jurisdictional rules, and the court system.
- Strong interpersonal skills: Strong communication skills and the ability to work cooperatively with counsel, chambers staff, litigants, and often the public.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for law clerk jobs relative to other occupations and industries is average. Employment is expected to grow by about 6% from 2016 to 2026, which is slightly slower growth than the average of 7% growth for all occupations between 2016 and 2026.
Law clerks work in an office environment and spend a good deal of their time in face-to-face discussions with peers and supervisors. The job may be stressful for some, as it involves constant pressure to be accurate and exact.
A law clerk can expect to work a full, 40-hour workweek.
How to Get the Job
Research the area of law that fits your interests. Many law clerks have said they learned more serving in this position for a limited time than in all their years in law school. This can be particularly advantageous if you want to go into a certain area of law. Apply for clerkships with courts that deal with the types of cases you're interested in, such as family law, criminal law, or tort law.
Get involved in relevant industry associations to make contacts and increase your chances of meeting those who can hire or refer you for a clerk job. Check online sites for organizations such as the Federal Court Clerks Association to see what events may be happening in your area.
The Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR) provides law clerk employment information. Search a national database of federal law clerk vacancies and find law clerk jobs by searching job search resources such as Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com for available positions.
The law clerk job significantly dresses up a resume. Four Supreme Court Justices began their careers as Supreme Court law clerks. Typically, however, you must serve in a lower court before becoming a clerk for a federal court judge.
Comparing Similar Jobs
- Lawyer: $120,910
- Administrative Law Judge, Adjudicator, or Hearing Officer: $99,850
- Archivist: $52,240
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018