Yalies Don’t Know About Clerking

October 27th, 2014

According to Yale Law School statistics, 41.5% of the Class of 2013 reported a clerkship as a first job after graduation. That numebr increases to 49% for those who clerked at any time. They even have to separate out their non-clerkship employment because “so many of our graduates clerk after graduation.”

Yet, when Justices Thomas and Sotomayor attended YLS in the 1970s, neither was even aware of clerking. During their recent remarks at YLS, Justice Sotomayor explained that “Until my third year of clerking, I hadn’t heard of clerking, I had’t thought of clerking.” Then-Professor Jose Cabranes first told her about it.

In her memoir, Sotomayor explained:

José Cabranes had advised me to keep my sights on a major law firm in the long term, saying it was a good platform from which to launch into government or any other direction, but that first of all I should clerk. I had heard classmates mention clerking and I knew it was prestigious, but José had to explain to me that it meant working, essentially as a researcher, for a judge. Though I knew he wanted the best for me, clerking sounded tediously academic. How much longer could I live in the library? If I was wary of going to a big firm, I still felt the need to get out in the real world and earn some money. Much later I would realize my naïveté. Especially working with my own clerks, I’ve come to appreciate how clerking for a judge can be the most vital mentoring relationship open to a young lawyer. It has become even more prestigious over the years since I left law school and the most direct stepping-stone to higher levels of legal practice. Many minority students and others who struggle under financial pressure sacrifice the long-term benefits of clerking for better pay in the near term. I advise them to resist that temptation and aim for the necessary grades, journal experience, and mentoring relationships with professors that can open the door to a clerkship. Part of me still regrets not having taken José’s advice at face value.

Justice Thomas had a similar experience, “I think you made a good point. I found out about the clerkship about 2 years after I was gone.”

As I note in my note, From Being One L to Teaching One L, I had no idea what clerking was when I started law school. I had in my mind something similar to Sotomayor–a ministerial, clerical job where I file papers for a judge. It wasn’t until my second year of law school, when a friend told me about his upcoming clerkship, did I begin to realize what it was. Then in my third year, I set the record for applying to the most federal judges–a record that will remain due to the abandonment of the hiring plan, and limits on OSCAR.

The Justices also explain how smart their colleagues were at YLS, and how it humbled them.

SS: I’m not going to repeat what’s in my book. In High School I was near the top of my class, in College, you may have heard, I graduated with Honors. I got to Yale. I learned a deep sense of humility.

CT: Oh yeah

SS: Sitting next to my classmates, listening to them in class, taught me how much smarter so many other people were, and how smart has different faces

CT: By the time I left, I had a sense of confidence of where I needed to be. Sonia is right. There is a lot we didn’t know.

I had a very similar experience the first time I visited YLS. It can very humbling. I still feel like I’m entering Hogwarts whenever I arrive.