January 18, 2011
Newly minted lawyers eschew big firms for clerkships
The Associated Press
HACKENSACK, N.J. -- It isn't exactly how 25-year-old Eric Reiser expected to begin his career fresh out of law school, earning about $48,000 as a law clerk at the Passaic County Courthouse in Paterson, N.J., while a friend is making more than twice as much at a big firm.
Clerking for a judge is customarily a way for some young lawyers to spend a year getting their feet wet before joining a firm as an associate. These days, however, many recent law school grads who would normally bypass the law clerk route and go straight into practice are finding clerkships to be the only employment option they have.
"Before the economy got as bad as it is, if you got around a 3.5 average, you could have assured yourself a decent job," said Reiser, who clerks for Superior Court Judge Margaret Mary McVeigh in Paterson, chief of Passaic County's Chancery Division. As the economy worsened, however, the Rutgers School of Law-Newark grad realized that even good grades weren't going to be enough.
"I kind of knew going into my third year of law school that I wasn't necessarily going to be able to get one of those big-firm jobs," said Reiser, of Hoboken, N.J. "So I went a different route. I figured, if I could get a clerkship, it would be very prestigious."
In the end, say some legal observers, everybody wins. Newly minted attorneys who might normally have gone straight into practice are gaining invaluable experience (if not six-figure salaries out of the gate). Judges, meanwhile, are getting their pick of the litter.
State Superior Court judges in New Jersey have seen a substantial jump in law clerk applicants -- many from Ivy League schools all over the country -- as big law firms cut back on hiring attorneys fresh out of law school.
"Over the last two years, I would say I've had four times as many applicants. And of those applicants, they're all with superior grade averages of over 3.5 from law schools all over the country," said McVeigh. "I normally get excellent resumes. But the volume of excellent resumes -- even the quality -- far surpasses anything I've ever seen. These are the kinds of applicants that would normally have gone to Supreme Court, or one of the large-starting-salary firms."
Superior Court Civil Assignment Judge Thomas F. Brogan agreed: "We're seeing people from Ivy League schools in greater numbers, or people who might have in the past gone with a big firm in New York but decided to forgo that and go this route instead."
A law clerk's duties include everything from researching case law, to writing summaries of lawsuits, to basic clerical duties, to mediating certain cases and observing court hearings. A New Jersey law clerk's salary range for the current court term is a minimum of $43,437 to a maximum of $57,090, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts in Trenton.
"I think it's true that the market has become much more competitive. We encourage new attorneys to clerk first, because it gives them hands-on experience," said Thomas Scrivo of the Newark, N.J., law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney and Carpenter. He would not comment on the firm's hiring practices.
Caitlin Lane, law clerk to Donald Volkert, Passaic County Superior Court Assignment judge in Paterson, said she prefers to think of her clerkship as smart planning and not a last resort.
"I think the influx and applicants is not only a sign of the economic climate but the increased value of a clerkship," said Lane, 25, of Hoboken and a Rutgers School of Law-Camden graduate.
"I was interested in a clerkship because you know it's only going to be a year and it allows you to see how things are run from the inside," she said. "It is a hard climate, and anything you can do to make yourself more marketable can help."
As for what's next for Reiser when his clerkship with McVeigh expires in August: He'll be starting yet another one-year law clerkship with federal bankruptcy Judge Michael B. Kaplan in Trenton. Federal clerkships are even harder to get than state ones. The fact that he got it, he said, shows he must be doing something right -- even if he's not going into practice next year.
"This wasn't the way I thought my post-graduate years from law school would play out," he said. "But in the end, it's going to benefit me. I'm getting great experience."
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