I can best describe my experience in one hyphenated word: awe-inspiring. Law clerks are able to obtain an inside look at not only what a judge does on a daily basis — how a judge handles cases, thinks about the law and makes decisions — but also how the courts’ internal process works. Not only does this experience help a law clerk better understand how to help future clients, it is humbling to be a part of the inner-workings of the court process.
I was fortunate enough to clerk for now-retired Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Julie B. Weatherly. Her expansive knowledge of the law did not overshadow her caring and compassionate nature. She treated all of her law clerks as family (having quarterly dinners and yearly reunions with the law clerks and their families).
Every law student should work as a clerk after graduating from law school. But what does a judicial law clerk do? A typical job description for a trial-level law clerk would read: review and make recommendations on a variety of motions; attend oral arguments, hearings and trials; conduct or attend settlement conferences; prepare trial memoranda for the judge, including a synopsis of the issues in a particular case; conduct legal research and draft research memoranda; write draft opinions and orders; advise and assist judge during trial; call court to session; write and edit jury instructions; perform record keeping and administrative tasks; interact extensively with attorneys.
The relationship between the judge and the law clerk has several facets: employer-employee, teacher-student, and lawyer-lawyer. In all of those relationships, the clerk must be aware of the respect due to the judge. Respect does not mean subservience: a clerk should not be afraid to express an opinion contrary to the judge’s when asked, and most judges expect and invite their clerks to question the judge’s views. Judges frequently seek the opinions of their clerks to the issues raised in pending cases, both for the value of being exposed to varying viewpoints and to train their clerks in the process of legal decision-making.
A judge may also ask the clerk to express an independent view after reaching a tentative decision in order to test the clerk’s conclusion or reasoning abilities. A clerk should present his or her views supported by legal research and analysis, when asked. If the judge should then reach a conclusion that differs from the clerk’s, the clerk must, of course, carry out the judge’s instructions with the utmost fidelity.
The clerk owes the judge complete confidentiality, accuracy, and loyalty. The judge relies upon the clerk’s research in reaching conclusions on pending cases. Also, the judge relies on confidentiality in discussing performance of judicial duties, and the judge must be able to count on complete loyalty. The clerk must not criticize the judge’s decisions, work habits or personal matters to anyone, including other members of the same court or their law clerks.