Monday, March 22, 2021
I am a huge fan of clerking. As any of my former students know, I strongly advocate that law students consider clerking after law school. And as my judge friends know, I am not shy to recommend current students to them.
While there are many benefits of clerking, I usually focus on two when talking to students. The first is a chance to have a front row seat to the decision making process. Students can learn how judges reach their decisions and what arguments persuade them. In some chambers, clerks get the opportunity to try to persuade their judge, which can be quite the learning process! I remember a chambers lunch where I, in essence, played attorney and answered questions from the judge on the case. It was eye-opening handling all the hypotheticals.
The other great benefit of clerking is the opportunity to develop close friendships and mentorship relationships. A chambers environment is typically very small, especially if your judge doesn't sit in the main circuit courthouse. When I clerked, our chambers spend a lot of time together--from nearly daily lunches to driving to court week together. It was fun, but that was because the people were fun. I learned a lot from them, especially when I could poke my head out my door to ask a question. Years after my clerkship, I still traveled to Richmond to eat a dinner with my judge when our schedules aligned, and I took students to oral arguments too.
But, as Judge Michael Daly Hawkins writes about in The Journal of Appellate Practice & Process, COVID-19 has changed that relationship. With many clerks working remotely, that mentoring relationship has changed. Gone too is the easy, in-person exchanges. As he notes, this is certainly a downside of remote work. In his piece he mentions that he hired a clerk to work remotely who he may never meet in person during her clerkship. I have heard from other judge friends about clerks working remotely. I think that it certainly has its drawbacks, especially for clerks who are right out of law school and need that mentoring relationship.
But, as Judge Hawkins also notes, not all the changes are bad. Video-conferencing software can make the hiring process easier (and less expensive) for applicants. There is also the benefit of avoiding commutes and dressing for the office. In a sentence that I found quite on point, he writes, "When off-camera, the hardest decision is often whether, or when, to move to shorts and flip-flops." I may, or may not, have worn flip-flops for about 6 months straight when the pandemic hit. (And I may be wearing slippers as I type this).
Much like the practice of law will change post-COVID, I do suspect that there will be lasting changes to the clerk relationship, the biggest probably being the interview process. But, inevitably, some ability to work from home will also be more common. Still, I suspect that the bulk of clerk work will still occur in chambers once more universal vaccination occurs.