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Clerkships valuable to law students

UW School of Law professor Stewart Jay refers to the time he spent clerking for then Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger as "the best job [I] ever had."

"We were like family," he said. "He treated us like sons. He would cook us lunch on Saturdays."

Jay first clerked on the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. While clerking for Burger from 1977-78, Jay influenced the first case about the interpretation of the endangered species law.

While doing research on the law as Congress had intended it, Jay found an interpretation that differed with the courts. He presented the information to Burger, which changed the court's final decision.

"It's hard to think of a job in the U.S. where a 27- or 28-year-old can have such influence over the development of public policy and such responsibility," Jay said.

Burger's court is most noted for its major decisions on abortion, capital punishment and school desegregation. Burger, who served as Chief Justice from 1969 to 1986, wrote the court's opinion in the Watergate case and a case over the desegregation of school buses. He was in the majority on Roe v. Wade, and assigned the justice who wrote the opinion.

Clerkship allows any graduating law student to take a year or two to work under judges before going off to practice law on their own. Law clerks assist judges by completing legal research and editing opinions.

Some are even permitted to draft opinions, said law professor Clark Lombardi, who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito when he served on the third circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

"Many people see it as a postgraduate fellowship," Lombardi said. "It is very much a part of the legal education."

Though clerking is by no means a requirement upon graduating law school, the extra year can provide many benefits for students.

"You see [law] from the other side," said Lombardi. "Being a person doing a first read [gives] you a better ability to predict how a judge will reason."

Lombardi's experience as a clerk gave him skills he used long after leaving he stopped clerking.

"It taught me to be a much better reader of cases and reader of statues and also a more measured and careful thinker," he said.

Many future professors apply to clerk knowing they may pursue a career in law education.

"As a teacher [it gave me] teaching tools. I am still relying on what I learned in that year," said law professor Peter Nicolas, who clerked for Judge Michael Boudin on the first circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. "It is certainly a quasi-pre requirement for going into law teaching."

Jay said clerking can be more than just a valuable credential -- it can teach skills not taught inside the classroom.

"I learned more in two years as a clerk than I learned in three years of law school. You get to actually see the process work," he said. "It is when I learned how to do legal research -- not in law school."

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