The Post-Clerkship Letdown

May 30th, 2014

Clerking is (almost always) an awesome job. I treasure the two years I spent in the Western District of Pennsylvania, and on the Sixth Circuit. I had the honor of working for two amazing judges, who mentored me in ways I will probably never fully appreciate. I also had the joy of working with co-clerks who have become life-long friends.

Yet, the denouement of the clerkship–as experienced by myself, my co-clerks, and countless other clerks I know–shares a common commiseration: “I am finishing the best job of my legal career, only one year out of law school.” In other words, this job was so awesome, and it is all down-hill from there.

Often, the follow-up to the clerkship can feel like a letdown. The clerkship, where you (often) set your own hours, (somewhat) decide which fascinating issues you want to work with, and have a single boss who is (usually) a standup judge, will dwarf over any future employment. Also, the degree of power is one I always warn incoming clerks about. It is quite scary once you realize that your writings and decisions (sometimes without a judge’s detailed consideration) affects someone’s life, liberty, and property.

But what comes next? Often, outgoing clerks join a big law firm where they are expected to work ridiculous hours, toil away at mundane tasks, and be assigned to the least interesting topics imaginable. No longer are you influencing the direction of the law through the opinions you draft. Now, if you’re lucky, you may come up with some good questions for someone else’s deposition. I can’t count how many friends experienced this post-clerkship letdown.

In particular, a number of my friends who have clerked on the Supreme Court have felt this let-down, in a very, very strong way. One minute you are writing opinions for the highest court in the land, shaping the state of constitutional law for decades to come. The next minute, you are at a firm, barred from practicing before the Supreme Court, working on inferior cases in the inferior courts. I’ve heard that many SCOTUS clerks never quite come down from the high, and always long for the taste of that power. (This fits into the D.C. power-culture quite generally).

I recently offered this advice to a friend who was wrapping up a Circuit clerkship, so I pose it here, generally. The clerkship is only the start of your career. While your second job may not be as fun as your first (it probably won’t), try not to succumb to the letdown. If you maintain the mentality that your best job was your first job, that will become reality. While the odds of you becoming a judge are slim to none, there are countless ways to improve on your legal career and achieve a sense of happiness with your work. It will take time. A key aspect of that trajectory is to drop the charade that you’ll never have a better position. As the summer draws near, and the final sittings are heard, try to avoid the post-clerkship letdown.