A few years after I was appointed a judge, the caseload per judge increased dramatically. That increase in case load meant that judges often did not have the time to conduct legal research necessary to accurately decide a case. It was decided that it would be most cost effective for each judge to have an attorney to assist the judge with the research, drafting orders and other tasks.
The pay for law clerks is lower than many starting salaries for associates in law firms or becoming employed in the public sector. The law clerks, however, gain valuable experience observing and working for the judges.
Over the 26 years, I have had 16 staff attorneys, commonly called law clerks. (Actually, my 17th started just this week!) Many judges prefer to have one competent clerk for as long as possible, as it can be somewhat of a chore to train in a new staff attorney. I have opted for the more traditional approach to employing clerks: They are expected to work one to two years, and then move on to a more traditional legal position.
I have had some clerks that have stayed for almost two years, and others that were gone within six months. I have taken great pleasure in watching these young attorneys start out on their careers.
There was a time, during a budget crisis, that a freeze on hiring law clerks was put in place. For several months, I was without a clerk (until that budget crisis finally passed) I worked without a clerk and did my own legal research. I commented at the time that I was the highest paid law clerk in the State of Minnesota. These young attorneys, trained in using computers for legal research, were significantly more efficient doing legal research than my method of pulling the books off the shelf, and retyping the language from the cases that needed to be in my decision.
I have worked with law clerks who were of all political persuasions. I have worked with a college football player and a Iraq war veteran and National Guard officer – each young attorney brings experiences to the office that I have never experienced. I have tried to be a mentor to these intelligent, motivated and dedicated young attorneys.
But I can guarantee that I have learned more from working with them than they have from me.
It was been a privilege and a pleasure.
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Next Week: Picking a Jury