The Catholic University of America

What Does it Mean to be a Judicial Clerk?

Office of Career and Professional Development | Judicial Clerkships

Judicial clerks perform a variety of activities in their daily work, with differences from court to court and judge to judge. The primary role of a clerk is to assist his or her judge in working efficiently under a tremendous workload and strict deadlines. Clerks carry out a variety of tasks that require legal training. These include conducting legal research, drafting opinions, preparing bench, research and trial memoranda, performing legal analysis, briefing your judge on various legal issues and assisting the judge while he or she is on the bench.

Trial court and appellate court clerkships on both the federal and state level differ significantly from each other. While clerks in both types of courts have the responsibilities listed above, the trial-level clerk performs a wider-variety of tasks due to the nature of the litigation process.

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 appellate-level law clerk's work can be described as more "academic" in nature than the trial-level clerk's. The clerk participates in every step of the appellate process including assisting with screening cases to help decide in which cases the court will hear oral arguments or drafting bench memoranda summarizing the parties' briefs prior to oral argument. In addition, the clerk may write memoranda on issues important to the ruling in a case. The clerk often assists in the administrative task of preparing for a "sitting" (when the panel of judges meets to hear a series of cases). After oral argument, one judge is assigned the task of writing the court's opinion. The clerk may be responsible for drafting the opinion according to the judge's directions. This includes a substantial amount of legal research and analysis. The clerk may also be responsible for drafting dissents, concurrences, and rulings on petitions for rehearing, and for reviewing the opinions of his/her judge.

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 fear 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 reactions 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. Therefore, a clerk should present his/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.