Columbia Kicks off Clerkship Season w/ Panel Discussion

Columbia Kicks off Clerkship Season w/ Panel Discussion

Clerking is one of the best ways to get front-line legal experience, said a panel of judges and judicial clerks at a discussion with Columbia Law School students.

"Why Clerk?”, the Law School’s inaugural panel for the 2007 clerkship season, featured Judges John Koeltl and Alvin Hellerstein ’56 of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and Robert Smith ’68 of the New York State Court of Appeals, several recent graduates now clerking, and moderator Gary Naftalis ’67. 

Among topics discussed was the variety of roles clerks play.  Judge Hellerstein, for example, after informing his clerk on how he plans to rule on a case, asks the clerk to write the first draft of the decision.  An editing process continues back and forth between the two until the judge is satisfied with the opinion. Judge Smith, on the other hand, does not ask clerks for decision drafts, but instead requests a detailed analysis of the case, as well as the clerk’s own position on it.

“Having to choose a side makes you think a little harder. You can’t just say, ‘There are good arguments on both sides. You've really got a tough decision here, Judge,’” explained Judge Smith.

The research and analysis clerks perform can help judges resolve tough issues. Judge Hellerstein said that he calls upon his clerks to research questions on sentencing guidelines in criminal cases.

Through its Clerkship Office, Columbia encourages students to apply to a variety of federal and state court clerkships, ranging from the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Courts of Appeals to the state supreme courts and the chambers of federal magistrate judges.  Headed by Ilene Strauss, director of judicial clerkships & academic counseling, the office sponsors educational programs, provides group and individual counseling, and assists students with the application process.

The fast pace of the courtroom means “you learn to write quickly and to write well,” said Monique Mendez ’06, law clerk to Judge Barbara Jones, also of the SDNY.

“It’s the most responsibility you can have your first year out of law school,” Ms. Mendez added.

By reading all briefs, observing arguments, and writing memos and drafts of opinions, a clerk becomes a resident expert on a range of topics and gets an intimate look of the justice system at work, explained Judge Koeltl.  The experience proves invaluable when clerks become practicing lawyers writing their own briefs and appearing before the bench.

Clerks also gain lasting mentors, added Mr. Naftalis, who clerked for the late Judge William B. Herlands of the SDNY, before launching his career in white collar litigation and becoming one of the nation’s top trial lawyers. Working side by side on challenging cases forges a close bond that extends long after the one-year term ends.

“It’s a heady year,” said Judge Hellerstein, “but it’s an opportunity to be seized.”