For nearly two years, I had the opportunity to serve as a law clerk for a United States District Judge. Serving in chambers was one of the greatest experiences of my legal career. Today, I wanted to take a short break from my federal court practice series and explain to policyholders the role law clerks play in the federal judicial system.
As I explained in a previous blog entry, most federal judges have a full staff of law clerks—lawyers that help the judge research legal issues, delve into the evidence, and draft opinions. There are two types of law clerks: career law clerks and term law clerks. A career law clerk is an attorney who can stay with the judge for over four years. Usually, each district judge and magistrate judge can hire one career law clerk. A term law clerk is usually a younger lawyer who serves in the judge’s chambers for one or two years. Law clerks are required to abide by the same ethical standards of conduct as their judges. These constraints exist to ensure that there is no unintentional outside influence on the judge’s decision-making process.
A law clerk helps the judge in many ways. First, law clerks often review the docket and help with daily case management assignments. Second, law clerks often research issues at the judge’s direction. Judges might ask the law clerk to investigate emerging trends in the law or track the progression of U.S. Supreme Court or Circuit precedent. Third, law clerks often draft initial orders under their judge’s supervision. The judges, of course, always have final say over all work product emanating from their chambers.
At trial, law clerks often play an important role. During complex civil litigation, the judge may be confronted with evidentiary or procedural issues that require research before he or she can make a ruling. Law clerks often work with the judge before proceedings commence to identify issues that might arise and to prepare jury instructions for the judge’s review.
Clerking for a judge is a spectacular way to learn the federal rules and to see how judges approach complex problems. All judges are different in how they employ their law clerk’s skills and abilities. Despite this, there is always one constant theme: the judge is the ultimate decider on all motions and requests to the court.
Ian Dankelman graduated cum laude from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. While in law school, he was named to the National Order of the Barristers, served as a vice president of the moot court team, and earned the highest grades in Legal Research and Writing and Trial Practice. After law school, he gained valuable litigation and trial experience as an assistant state attorney. Before joining Merlin Law Group, he served from October 2016 to September 2018 as a law clerk for a United States District Judge in the Middle District of Florida.