Vault’s Emerging Lawyers Series highlights the legal careers of recent law school graduates, exploring how they landed their first law job, what it’s like working as a junior lawyer, and any advice they have for law students pursuing similar paths.
John Pavletic, a 2018 graduate of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, is currently employed as a judicial law clerk for a federal appellate judge. Prior to his current clerkship, John spent his first year after law school clerking for a federal district court judge. We sat down with John to ask about his experience as a clerk and for his advice to law students interested in pursuing a clerkship.
Vault: As a law student, how did you learn about clerkships and decide you wanted to pursue one after law school?
John: As a 1L, I sought out the advice of my professors because I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to pursue. After I mentioned that criminal and constitutional law had been my favorite first-year classes, one professor suggested I might enjoy clerking and that I should try a judicial externship. As an extern, I was able to earn class credit while seeing whether I enjoyed working for a judge. My immersion in the judge’s chambers and courtroom led me to believe that clerking was a job I could see myself enjoying and—with any luck—excelling at.
I highly recommend an externship for a taste of what a clerkship is like. As an extern, you’re essentially a “quasi-clerk.” You’re given real responsibilities and the opportunity for substantive work while gaining an insider’s view of how the court operates. While research and writing were the meat and potatoes of my externship, I also spent plenty of time observing proceedings in my judge’s courtroom and in other federal and state courtrooms. An externship is also a great way to build your network with a judge and his or her clerks; in my case, it led to the judge later offering me my first clerkship.
Vault: Do you recommend that students complete a judicial externship even if they don’t want to clerk after law school?
John: Yes, I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t want to clerk after graduation, an externship is a valuable way to make connections, participate in events at the courthouse, and gain insight about how the courts operate. These are all opportunities you might not get once you’re a practicing attorney.
Vault: In a similar vein, should law students who want to go into transactional/corporate practice consider a judicial clerkship?
John: I definitely think so. In my opinion, lawyers of all stripes should gain courthouse experience, especially in a court of general jurisdiction like the federal courts, where you’ll see issues germane to your practice area. I routinely work on cases dealing with financial transactions, acquisitions, and other corporate issues. Also—more to the point—the skills you obtain while clerking are transferable to the practice of law generally. As a clerk, you’re participating in decision-making processes with real consequences, so you’ll refine your research and writing skills, legal thought processes and issue spotting, and ability to perform under a time crunch.
At the end of the day, clerking also gives you a baseline knowledge of the judiciary and how disputes are resolved, which is useful for any lawyer. As a transactional lawyer, it gives you knowledge of the legal issues you’re trying to stave off. If you truly don’t want to be a clerk after law school, at least try an externship as a law student. It’s a low-risk, high-reward way to gain valuable experience.
Vault: Can you describe the day-to-day life of a clerk?
John: There is a lot of time spent researching and writing, but the particulars really depend on the court, judge, and clerk. Though I typically have many matters on my plate at once, I like to work on solving one problem at a time. This means that sometimes I work on a single matter for an entire week.
On a more detailed level, I read briefs along with the cases, rules, statutes, and articles cited within, then draft a memorandum to the judge with my recommended case disposition. In appellate court, where judges hear cases as a panel, I monitor communication from other judges’ chambers as they work to write a unified opinion. I also spend time with the judge talking through cases. This can be on the front end answering the judge’s questions or on the back end working through edits to a draft opinion. And of course, I spend time conversing with my co-clerks about everything from our cases to life issues—like any office, we have healthy amounts of water cooler talk.
Finally, there are days when I’m in court. As an appellate court clerk, I’m only in the courtroom once per week when court is in session. As a district court clerk, I was in court every day with rare exception. Federal district courts are trial courts, which means more proceedings. I saw civil proceedings—like initial status hearings, motion hearings, pretrial conferences, jury instructions, and trials—and on the criminal side, I saw arraignments, detention hearings, change of plea hearings, suppression hearings, and sentencing.
Vault: I think for some law students, the idea of working for a judge is intimidating. How do you get over these nerves and become comfortable with courtroom decorum?
John: I think you can compare the nervousness of working for a judge to the nervousness of starting any new job—your first days will always be anxiety-inducing. And I do recognize and appreciate there is a certain “majesty” to the court and the judiciary, but at the end of the day, judges are human beings. They laugh and cry like the rest of us—they just have an important day job that our society venerates.
My advice is to not let the nerves stop you from trying an externship or clerkship. On your first day, just go into the courtroom with an open mind, and be ready to learn. You’ll adapt and acclimate; just keep your eyes and ears open to how your judge runs his or her chambers. Nobody is perfect, and you’ll make mistakes like anyone else, but you have to accept that and learn from it.
Vault: If you don’t mind sharing, what is the biggest mistake you’ve made as a clerk?
John: Well first I’ll start out and say that when it comes to work product and recommendations to the judge, it’s hard to make a “mistake” per se. When the judge doesn’t agree with my decision, that doesn’t mean I’ve made an error. As a clerk, it’s your job to aid the judge in the deliberation process, but the judge makes the call at the end of the day. I like to think that presenting the judge with a decision they disagree with is an asset. These issues are in court for a reason: They’re multi-sided and there are probably many reasonable outcomes. You shouldn’t feel bad for giving an opinion that ultimately isn’t adopted by the judge. You’ve done your part in the process by ensuring a comprehensive review of the problem took place.
That being said, I have certainly made mistakes. During my first clerkship, I was assigned to a trial, and part of my job was to shepherd the jury into court every morning. This meant I had to be there early. One morning, I was running late—late enough that when the judge asked where I was, I wasn’t there. I knew I had failed to meet expectations, and I felt like I let the court down. I owned up to my mistake and after that was never late again. Obviously, that mistake wasn’t unique to clerking. As a professional, you have to be punctual and accountable—any boss would have been disappointed in me that day.
Vault: What has been your favorite part of clerking?
John: Overall, my favorite part is the satisfaction of knowing I’m performing a public service by helping the judge resolve cases. I don’t think a lot of people think about it this way, but by clerking, you’re playing a small role in the most syndicated form of dispute resolution in this country.
In close second are the relationships I’ve formed with the judges I’ve worked for. Having a mentor and supporter in the form of a judge is extremely meaningful. Clerking goes beyond the day-to-day tasks of dealing with the law and forms the basis of a lifelong mentorship. In 30 years, you may still be calling your judge asking for career and life advice.
Vault: What has been the most challenging part of clerking?
John: For me, it’s dealing with the tough cases where I struggle to come up with a recommendation. There have been times I’ve wavered and wanted to “split the baby”—but that isn’t helpful to the judge. No matter how difficult the issue is, a clerk’s duty is to draw a conclusion from a neutral perspective to give the judge some framework. The judge already knows both sides of the arguments; the parties have handled that part!
Vault: What classes and activities should students who want to clerk take advantage of in law school?
John: I highly recommend joining a journal and participating in either moot court or trial advocacy. I was on moot court and loved it. You want to be as prepared as you can be for researching and writing, since that is the bulk of your job as a clerk, and you get that experience on journal and moot court by drafting articles, writing and editing briefs, and presenting oral arguments.
As far as classes go, I again recommend courses that expose you to researching and writing—like appellate advocacy, for example. On the other hand, you do want to soak up as much substantive doctrine as you can so that when you get to court, you’re able to spot issues more efficiently and are livelier on your feet responding to legal arguments. I would recommend classes like evidence, administrative law, constitutional criminal procedure, and—if you’re going to work in the federal courts—a course on federal jurisdiction.
Vault: Thank you so much for everything you’ve shared about your clerkship experience. As a final question, what parting words of advice do you have for law students going through their career search, whether for clerkships or otherwise?
John: I would say that, whether you’re seeking out a clerkship or something else, just trust the process and go for it. The interview process can seem daunting, but don’t let that discourage you—and don’t let rejection stop you. Speaking for myself, I was one of the students at my law school who didn’t get a job offer through OCI—and in hindsight, it’s probably because I was more excited for the opportunity to clerk as a new graduate. When I interviewed for my clerkships, conversation was much easier and more natural because that was the goal I was excited about at the time. It’s a cliché and a truism, but when it comes to job hunting, just be yourself! There is some magic in those words.
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