A New Trend to Watch for Law School Grads

Everything seems to be changing these days at America’s top law schools, but one trend I never thought we’d see would be a sudden influx of practicing attorneys applying for federal clerkships. According to an article in the Philadelphia Business Journal, the percentage of alumni applicants is climbing rapidly from past years.

Temple has seen alumni make up 28 percent of its clerkship applications (up from 13 percent last year) and Penn claims that “35 to 40 percent” of its clerkship applicants are alumni.

Granted, the article focuses on Philadelphia area law schools, but the trend seems to expand beyond the region.

So what are the takeaways?

For starters, it confirms what I’ve been hearing from peers, which is that clerkships can be a grueling job. Once seen as both a more prestigious and less taxing entry into the legal world, it seems safe to say that only the “prestigious” part remains in play. The level of difficulty embedded in a clerkship is, of course, determined by the judge in question, but there certainly seems to be a pattern forming that includes difficult work and insane hours. A friend of mine clerked with the Ninth Circuit last year and his workload put my “big firm” hours to shame (and make no mistake, I worked a lot). The fact that judges are looking for more experienced attorneys to act as clerks seems to indicate that the workload is getting more difficult and more intense.

The other key takeaway here is that it will impact the career paths of today’s law school applicants. Many elite candidates select programs based on the chances of landing prestigious federal clerkships. Some will settle for nothing short of a prominent Appellate Circuit clerkship with the hopes that it will launch them to a gig with the Supreme Court.

But if more and more of those spots are going to more experienced alums, it puts greater pressure on all parties. Applicants – particularly those with no intentions of practicing, but rather riding a clerkship into academia – will have to chose their law schools very carefully and monitor this trend to see which programs are protecting current students by suppressing the influx of alums.

Yet another factor to consider in the very difficult decision of where to study law.