Tips for new clerks

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s column is written by Karen Munoz.

It’s the time of the year where summer law clerks or summer associates are headed back to school. For those that do stay on at firms, or are now just beginning a clerkship at a firm, the transition from summer employment to a more permanent position can be challenging.  Our firm has a new law clerk that started. With his recent arrival, we came up with some points to keep in mind on both sides of the fence.  Many thanks to our clerk, Patrick Longworth for his assistance on this blog post.

1. Get to know your co-workers

This is obviously very important but we’ve all seen really bright people coming straight out of law school who can seem reclusive and distant in the workplace. This is probably mostly due to nerves but staying in your shell can really make it hard to fit in at first and can alienate co-workers. A healthy office environment is one where everyone can work together effectively and you really have to know the people you work with for this to happen. A clerk might be really good at any legal task they’re given but that’s not what it’s all about. So new clerks should introduce themselves to everyone, ask others questions about what they like and offer a few things about themselves.

2. Get to know the office

Knowing the people you work with is one thing but knowing the office dynamic is another equally important part of a clerk’s job. If your hours are 9-5 and you’re the only one who clocks out at 5 on the dot everyday then you’re probably not making a good impression. At the same time, if everyone goes out for lunch some day and you stay at your desk working through lunch, that won’t help your cause too much either. So try to take everything in.

4. Ask questions

This applies in nearly all walks of life but it’s particularly true in the legal profession. It’s very easy to misunderstand a task or get stuck on something complex and confusing, but you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions when you are. It’s the only way you’ll get on the right track. It might be something simple like asking what the exact motion you’re doing research for is called or asking for clarification on a particular thing your boss asked you to do. But nobody benefits from a new clerk feeling lost, not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing and working on something different to what they were asked, purely because of a simple misunderstanding.

5. Remember it’s not law school

I read a survey of practicing lawyers recently where they were asked how much of what they do on a daily basis was learned in law school and the average answer was less than 10 percent. This probably comes as no surprise to most of us but learning the law and practicing it are obviously two totally different things. New clerks should not expect to be working on appeals to the Supreme Court debating some age-old precedent. But a lot of what we all studied in law school was like that and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see clerks struggling with what may seem like simple procedural matters when they’re thrown in at the deep end. People skills, both with co-workers and clients are just as important as legal skills when it comes to practicing law.

6. Understand your clients’ needs

When performing a task for a particular client, it’s important to understand exactly what they want. Take a commercial client, for example. It may want to complete a complex merger or acquisition of another company to expand their operations and your task may be to figure out exactly how to complete such a transaction. These transactions can be very complex and troublesome in a number of respects for all involved. However, doing a little research on the client’s business, either on your own or by asking direct questions, may be all it takes for you to come up with an alternative proposal for business expansion. This is obviously a very basic example but it applies to non-commercial clients as well. Knowing a little can go a long way.

Being inquisitive and willing to dig deeper into issues goes a long way when clerking at a firm. Take advantage of the tasks you work on day to day. You can never go wrong.

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