Nuts & Bolts of Judicial Clerkships: Alumni Perspective

February 16, 2016

A judicial clerkship is a prestigious and competitive employment opportunity for a law school graduate. In advance of the Office of Career Services’ 2016 Judicial Clerkship Info session, two SLU LAW alumni provide their perspective and advice to prospective applicants. 

Mohsen Pasha (’14) clerked with Judge Laura Denvir Stith at the Missouri Supreme Court. He is currently an associate attorney at Sandberg Phoenix. While at SLU LAW, he served as the editor of the Saint Louis University Law Journal

When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
My freshman year of college when I attended a pre-law panel discussion.

When did the idea of clerking pique your interest?
My first year of law school. I heard several faculty members say that clerking was the best thing they did for their careers. Specifically, it gave them an opportunity to work closely with a judge and develop their legal minds by objectively looking at both sides of an argument.

What was the best thing about clerking?
Professionally, the best thing was the opportunity to improve my legal analysis and legal writing. Legal analysis and legal writing is all I did every single day. Through that experience, I learned how to effectively communicate a set of legal ideas in a clear and concise manner. Personally, I built a lot of great friendships with the other clerks. The Court has a very collegial atmosphere that I enjoyed participating in.

What is something about the experience that you didn’t expect?
How much I learned from watching oral arguments. There is no one formula to have a successful oral argument. I found that the key was being flexible and not sticking to a script.

How did you use the clerkship to determine what you wanted to do in your career? How have you used this as a stepping stone for your career?
One of the big reasons I wanted to clerk was so I could be exposed to different areas of law. Although I will likely end up practicing in one or two narrow areas, I know that what I learned in my clerkship in terms of analytical and written skills can be transferred to any practice area. In terms of a stepping stone, I think clerking has helped me work on complex projects at the firm that I probably would not have had a chance to work on if I had not clerked.

What are you long-term career ambitions/goals?
I would like to stay in St. Louis and develop a reputation as an organized and focused attorney who works hard for his clients.

What advice can you give to a student wanting to be a clerk?
In school, I recommend that students (1) work hard to get the best grades they can and (2) serve on a journal. For the interview process, I recommend that students wanting to clerk reach out to former and current judicial clerks for advice. That really helped me out a lot. The fact that I knew about the Court helped me delve into detailed questions during my interview.

What advice do you have for someone who receives a clerkship?
Make the most of the opportunity. Get to know your judge and learn about his or her career. Make friends with the other clerks and court staff. Go to every oral argument. Relish working on challenging assignments.

Anything else you’d like to add? I’m always happy to help out with clerkship advice so please feel free to reach out.

Jessie Steffan (’12) clerked for Judge Catherine D. Perry at the U.S. Distri
ct Court of Eastern Missouri for almost three years and is now a staff attorney at ACLU of Missouri. While at SLU LAW, she wrote a seminar paper that earned her the 2013 Hughes Gossett Student Prize for the best student essay by the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society. The essay was published in the Journal of Supreme Court History; she was presented the award by Justice Antonin Scalia (pictured, right, with her husband John '11).

When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
Frankly, I wasn't sure I wanted to practice law until after I graduated from law school. I went to law school because I thought I might like learning about the law and because I didn't have any other plans. I have a journalism background and mostly anticipated using my degree to be a good investigative reporter.

When did the idea of clerking pique your interest?
I knew I wanted to learn how a chambers works. I participated in the judicial externship class and was placed in an appellate court. That experience helped me understand how different trial and appellate practice are. I realized I wanted the experience of being more “on the ground” at a trial court. I also worried about pigeonholing post-graduation. Some of my colleagues developed deep specialties in a niche area of the law. Although I recognize this is important, I wanted to be more of a generalist, at least early in my career. Clerking helped me accomplish this goal.

What was the best thing about clerking?
Clerking teaches two skills that are crucial to both law practice and personal relationships: expressing yourself clearly and seeing issues of conflict from multiple sides.

What is something about the experience that you didn’t expect?
I didn't expect it to be so satisfying. I thought it would be a good learning experience (and of course it was), but when I had contributed to the Court reaching a result I thought was fair and proper under the law, I felt a great deal of satisfaction. This is the day-to-day stuff the rule of law is made of. 

How did you use the clerkship to determine what you wanted to do in your career? How have you used this as a stepping stone for your career?
As I mentioned, clerking skills are eminently transferable: sequential thinking, thorough and efficient research, and cogent writing are all skills that have a benefit no matter what you do afterward. I came to realize I liked both litigation and non-specialization, and so that's what I sought in a post-clerkship post.

What are your long-term career ambitions/goals?
I'm taking things step by step.

What advice can you give to a student wanting to be a clerk?
Work relentlessly on legal writing; it really is different. I thought I had a leg-up, but a writing background can be a disadvantage because it makes you cling to old habits. Take courses in which you write a lot and in which you can develop good relationships with professors. Don't take Bar classes just to take Bar classes. Don't lose sight of learning for learning's sake because you never know when that new insight will turn out to have a practical application.

Applying and interviewing for a clerkship is like applying and interviewing for any other position. Arrive on time; dress professionally; have someone else proofread your resume; answer questions with examples, not with vague responses about working hard or excellent research skills. If you are not sure you know how to do these things, ask for help! Do not send generic cover letters to all the judges at a court or all the courts in the country (many people do). Read a few opinions by your target judge and let his or her writing style sink in. Then craft your cover letter. If you request a letter of recommendation in writing, take the opportunity to remind the recommender of concrete interactions you had and/or provide copies of assignments you turned in. Get familiar with OSCAR early. At least in 2011, it was still very glitchy. And turn in your application materials on the very first day they are accepted.

What advice do you have for someone who receives a clerkship?
Work hard!

Anything else you’d like to add?
A clerkship is a (mostly) 9-to-5 job with a competitive salary that provides continuous learning opportunities and a chance to see a great lawyer (your judge) in action. It really can't be beat.

Summer Reflections: 2L Michael Dowd-Nieto Shares Experience at Law Program in Madrid

Second-year law student Michael Dowd-Nieto experienced Madrid as a student and as an intern at a Spanish law firm.

Summer Reflections: 2L Melissa DeClue Interns with Aircraft Manufacturer Airbus in Toulouse, France

Second-year law student Melissa DeClue spent the first half of her summer taking classes in Madrid, Spain, and the second half interning for aircraft manufacturer Airbus in Toulouse, France.

Summer Reflections: James Callahan IV Interns at CDC

Third-year law student James Callahan IV fulfilled his dream of working for the CDC over the summer as a public health law intern.

Summer Reflections: 3L Aida Herenda Discusses Her Internship at St. Jude

Third-year health law student Aida Herenda spent the summer in Memphis, Tennessee, working as a legal intern in the Office of Legal Services at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.