May 14, 2005

Thoughts on getting off the beaten path

The last few weeks, I've been thinking quite a bit lately about applying for clerkships. Because it seems like life is trying to tell me that it may not be the best plan for me. And I'm slowly starting to listen.

Letters of Recommendation. One of my professors who previously promised to write me a letter of rec has decided not to respond to my email asking for confirmation that she'd definitely have time to write the letter before the school-mandated clerkship deadline. Sure, I could bother her with a follow up email during the grading period for finals, but the little voice in the back of my head is thinking, "if you have to beg for a letter, how good can it be?"

Advice from the experts. Recently, I went to lunch with the partner I worked for last summer. We talked quite a bit about clerking at the district court level and his perception that in silicon valley, outside of academia, it doesn't hurt, but it definitely doesn't help as much as people believe it does. For example, in his opinion, it may help you move from the person who the litigation firms wouldn't consider to one they might, but it probably won't help you all that much if you are already considered a decent find. He was quick to point out that the valley's perception of clerking was quite different than New York firms' perceptions, where it really does help. But, I have no interest in moving to New York and working at a firm there. In fact, I won't even know if I'm interested in litigation 'til AFTER the majority of the work to apply for clerkships is due.

Furthermore, it was his opinion that an externship probably gives one the same exposure to the legal process without requiring a missed year of firm life. Yes, some firms will give you parity and bring you in as a second year associate if you clerk, but it really doesn't count in terms of your actual status since you're treated as a first year as far as the work the partners will trust you with and how much actual experience you have as an associate at that firm.

He's not alone. I've talked with quite a few partners about this issue. And every partner with whom I've discussed this issue agrees -- it's just not that helpful for someone like me unless I get a clerkship in my local area (where the intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the court and connections with the court can be quite helpful) or an appellate clerkship. The san francisco bay area? Yeah, those courts might be a little competitive. And in reality, the only appellate clerkship I've got a real chance of getting is the Federal Circuit. Which, don't get me wrong, I'd really enjoy, but it would require a move to DC.

The Significant Other. E has a job here. E and I can't do a long-distance relationship. So, I have to limit any clerkship applications to places where E could work. That throws the Eastern District of Texas and many tropical locations out of the running. When you combine E's need to work and my desire for technology-related cases, it limits me to applying only to locations that are the most competitive.

Laziness. On paper, I'm not as competitive as the majority of the people who will be getting the clerkships that meet my requirements. Applying for clerkships is quite a bit of work. So, I'd be doing quite a bit of work to apply for a few shots in the dark. My time could be much better spent doing other things...

Finances. So, basically, best case scenario, I'd be taking more than a 50% pay cut to move to DC, and take E away from the best place for work in the software industry. I'd refused to consider the money issue until recently. But once I started thinking about it, it was a compelling reason to just not apply right now.

I'm not the kind of person who lets money get in the way of their dreams. First, I figure out what I want, then I figure out how to pay for it in a way that is acceptable to me. But, with the clerkships, I'm not starting in a vacuum. I've already got goals that clerking needs to compete with: specifially, I want to travel and I want to retire early.

That 50% pay cut in the first year of my earning career after a three year break would really push things back, financially speaking. Add the fact that we may have to move and pay the mortgage (or at least subsidize it while someone pays us rent) while ALSO paying for rent in another city and it's more like a 75% pay cut. And did I mention we're getting married--yeah, that's some debt I'd like to pay down during my first year as a lawyer, but it will not happen if I take that pay cut and we are paying more in housing costs.

The real issue. Yes, I know that no one clerks for the money. Rather, I've been told that people who aren't into the academic prestige and connections clerk because it's the best experience of their legal career, and "the best year of their life." After my externship, I could see how the best experience of the career bit could be true. But, I'm not in a hurry to have the best experience of my legal career. If it's really all downhill after clerking, maybe I could do it a few years down the line, if I still want, and the pay will be higher and I'll know what I'm missing in terms of leaving the firm.

In fact, once I consider that I can apply for clerkships after a few years of working, then the only reason to take the pay cut, move, etc, now is because everyone else is doing it. But, career-wise, money-wise, relationship-wise, and life goal-wise, it doesn't make that much sense for me, so why exactly would I follow the crowd?

Since I accept that it wouldn't be that helpful for my career, I'd be doing it because it was a great life experience (admittedly, a great reason to do things). I'd be looking for "the best year of my life" I've heard so much about. But once we get into that category, then I've got to consider that in terms of life-experiences, as it stands right now, I'd rather travel around the world on a year-long grand sight-seeing tour of the world than clerk. And that trip costs money. If I do it the way I want to do it, it'll cost much less than 50% post-taxes of my first year associate pay. In short, I'd rather spend the money on travel than on purchasing the privilege of clerking.

So, perhaps I'm better off going straight to work for a few years, paying down my debt, and then deciding if I'd rather clerk or take that world tour, or just drop out of life and open an ex-pat bar on an island somewhere. Because, really, I'm not part of that crowd. Most of the reasons that make sense to them don't make sense to me. So maybe I don't need to compile a billion envelopes and send them off next labor day.

I reserve the right to change my mind again, of course...

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