The term "law clerk" is commonplace in law schools and courts, but everyone else asks one question when they hear someone is working as a law clerk: "So, what do you do?" However, the term "law clerk" can mean a few different things, depending on where the clerk is employed.
Law Clerks at a Law Firm
For example, if the person works for a law firm as a law clerk, that means he is currently attending law school while performing legal research and writing tasks for the lawyers at his firm. This is a way law students can make extra money while attending school, get practical experience in the legal field, and network with lawyers they might work with after graduation.
Court Clerks at a Courthouse
On the other hand, if the person works at a courthouse as a clerk, their primary duties would be receiving and filing papers, assigning numbers for new cases, and making sure the files are organized and assigned to the correct judges, as well as many other court-related tasks. A law degree is not typically required for this position.
Judicial Law Clerks
Finally, just because someone went to law school, graduated, and passed the bar exam doesn't necessarily mean that person is a lawyer. Many recent law graduates take clerking jobs before they begin practicing law. A law school graduate employed as a law clerk usually works directly under a judge. This can be for a state court or federal court, for a district court, appellate court, or even the Supreme Court.
This type of law clerk usually works for one or two years after graduating law school and then moves on to practice law as an attorney. Sometimes, however, law clerks can remain with the same judge as long as the judge and the clerk are happy with the arrangement. For example, one Federal Bankruptcy judge in New Mexico has had the same law clerk for over twenty-five years.
What does a "Judicial Law Clerk" do?
A judge's law clerk will generally take the cases that come up on appeal and do extensive research on the laws that apply to each case. They will then draft a memorandum for the judge, which gives an outline of the case facts and a general idea of the specific laws that apply to the case. Then the judge will do additional research and tell the law clerk how the case should be decided.
The next phase is writing a judicial opinion, which is a written argument that sets out the law that applies to the case, the facts of the case, and then the judge's reasons for deciding the case the way it did. Some judges will write an opinion themselves and have the law clerk review it for logic and consistency. Other judges will have the law clerk do a draft of the opinion and then make changes and corrections themselves. The judicial law clerk helps keep the judge informed on changes in the law and specific nuances in the case facts, allowing the judge to spend his time making sure he is deciding the case in a way that clarifies the law and promotes justice.
Law Clerks Keep Things Moving
In every one of these functions, a law clerk is important for performing tasks that keep the courts and legal processes moving smoothly. Without them, attorneys and judges would not have the time to do quality work or make quality decisions. In a way, law clerks are like grease on the axle of justice.
What does a paralegal do? While it is clear that a paralegal assists lawyers with cases, their day-to-day duties may vary depending on the law office.
Understanding the requirements to become a paralegal can help you decide if you want to try out this career, which calls for strong research skills and adaptability.