A Guide to Post-Clerkship Hiring at Law Firms

Launch Your Career Path

While embarking on a judicial clerkship may feel like swimming in a world of legal intricacies, clerks emerge from these roles with insights and experiences that uniquely shape a lawyer’s career.  At Wilson Sonsini, we recognize how your time as a clerk can help you seamlessly transition into a thriving career—and the immense value that judicial clerks bring to our firm.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore clerkships and the post-clerkship journey, emphasizing the unique opportunities and pathways that Wilson Sonsini offers to judicial clerks, as we delve into the invaluable skill sets you’ve honed and how they align with our firm’s cutting-edge legal practices.

What is a judicial clerkship?

A judicial clerkship is usually a full-time job, lasting one or two years, working for a judge. Many clerks serve immediately after law school, but some people go back and clerk after a few years of practice experience. Clerks’ responsibilities vary depending on the level of the court, the jurisdiction, and the judge for whom they’re working. However, duties almost always include reading party submissions, conducting research, and drafting opinions. According to Justice Deno Himonas (former Justice of the Utah Supreme Court and current Wilson Sonsini partner), “clerks also get a macro view of the court. They see how everything fits together, from the complaint to the pleadings, the discovery, and the resolution.”

Why do firms like to hire clerks?

Firms like to hire clerks for several reasons. For one, folks coming off a clerkship have just spent at least a year with an insider’s view of their court. They’re quite comfortable in that setting and with the court’s administrative processes. Clerks get exposure to different litigation styles, and they know what their judge and others on the court tend to think about certain styles or types of arguments. In an industry where details and context matter so much, this experience is invaluable. “You get to see so many examples of what not to do. You get feedback from your judge and get to hear why certain things are or are not effective,” says Judge Paul Watford (former judge on the Ninth Circuit, SCOTUS clerk, and current Wilson Sonsini partner).

Among the most important reasons to hire a clerk is that it’s generally safe to assume that clerks are sharp. According to Mark Yohalem (former SCOTUS clerk and current Wilson Sonsini partner), “All clerkships add prestige and social proof. Judges have decided that these are promising young lawyers.”

Of course, clerks can also be valuable to firms outside of litigation practices. There are several groups at Wilson Sonsini that actively recruit clerks, including our Corporate Governance practice. According to Adrian Broderick (Wilson Sonsini corporate partner), “A clerkship provides valuable insight into how the issues that we face every day in the corporate governance practice can play out in the real world, including the litigation impacts that things like board processes and decisions, and deal terms and governance structures, may have.”

How might clerks think about their next move?

In all likelihood, the only employment-related challenge a clerk may have as they’re coming to the end of their term is sorting through more options and opportunities than they had pre-clerkship. Furthermore, no matter where you are in your process or what you’re considering, you’ll also have access to a new social network. “The judge and their future or prior clerks connect you to the legal community in new ways. You’re able to learn about their careers and be mentored by them, and the judge is the most valuable. Most judges are very interested in their clerks’ success,” says Yohalem. Many clerks stay connected to their judges for years, even decades after the clerkship ends, and all of the judge’s clerks over time form a network that often has reunions, group texts, and regular Zoom meet-ups.  

You can use this network in conjunction with your own preferences to find some exciting options. Not all firms are the same and it’s a good long-term strategy to find a setting that reflects or cooperates with your values, interests, and working style. If you know that you thrive in environments like a judge’s chambers, leverage your network to find a firm that has that kind of collaborative and dynamic culture. Did you love working on emerging issues that will impact our society for decades? There are firms that specialize in working on cutting edge legal issues with innovative startup companies. (You know, like Wilson Sonsini. And we have a lot of former clerks working here.)

What comes next?

You can divide the next steps into three main strategies. The first is fairly standard; working your network and applying to firms. The second option is to let firms come to you. Some firms will send letters to clerks asking them to apply, while others may hold receptions where clerks can meet attorneys from the firm in a social setting. At Wilson Sonsini, we typically hold a few of these receptions each year in markets where there is a nexus between our clients’ needs and a large talent pool capable of providing the exceptional service and creative thinking that our clients have come to expect. Wilmington, DE, for example, is a hub of business formation, corporate litigation, and corporate governance, the city where more than half of Fortune 500 companies are incorporated, and home to the Court of Chancery. As such, we host an annual reception for Court of Chancery, Delaware Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, and Third Circuit Court of Appeals judicial clerks, because the particularized knowledge gained through a clerkship in these courts gives our attorneys an edge that our clients seek. Across the country in California, and for similar reasons, we host receptions for judicial clerks of the Ninth Circuit and Federal District Courts of California.  These young attorneys are developing skills that will allow them to excel at representing our clients in the courtrooms where we practice every day. Of course, this is not to suggest that just because we may not host a reception in a particular jurisdiction that we don’t value the expertise that clerks there have to offer. We encourage judicial clerks from any Federal District Court, Circuit Court, State Supreme Court, and other courts of jurisdictions relevant to Wilson Sonsini’s practice to apply, which you can do so by simply sending their materials to judicialclerks@wsgr.com.

The third track, and the one that we’d recommend if you have the opportunity, is a combination of the first two. Do plenty of research. Talk to your network. Take firms up on opportunities to get to know them, and if you like what you learn, make sure to keep the conversation going. A simple e-mail to the recruiter or an attorney you met that expresses your appreciation and interest will maintain the relationship and often leads to a more formal set of interviews.

As with all job searches, you’ll want to make sure to signal that you’re a great fit for the office and firm. This could mean considering things like a connection to the geography, but most importantly, how your experiences will make you an asset. While all clerkships are valuable, some may be more valuable when considering practicing in the same jurisdiction or in a group that specializes in a particular area of law where you now have expertise. The examples listed above from Delaware and California would fit this model well.  

So when does this all begin?  That depends on several variables, and none are more important than what your judge feels is appropriate.  Each court and judge have norms regarding when clerks and firms should engage in conversations, interviews, or make and consider offers, etc.  This is usually dependent on how concerned the judge or court is about potential conflicts of interest.  If clerks are being recruited by firms who have matters in front of their judge…. well, you can see how sticky that could be.  What we can tell you is that the “season” begins in October in some jurisdictions and runs through April in others.  Talk to your co-clerks to find out what’s been done in the past.  Talk to your judge to learn how she or he feels about it.

For clerks who attend a reception hosted by Wilson Sonsini and want to keep the conversation going, the best thing to do is reach out to the local recruiter or to the clerk recruitment team at judicialclerks@wsgr.com.  Make sure to include your resume and law school transcript.  From there, the recruiting team sets up a series of meetings or interviews between the clerk and attorneys in the groups where they have interest. 

Good luck with your clerkship and your search, and we look forward to meeting you!