What Is a Law Clerk?

Apr 5, 2022

What is a law clerk and what kind of benefits can you find working as a law clerk? This episode dives into law clerk certification, “big law,” traditional students compared to non-traditional students, and how to find a balance between working at a law firm and your personal life. Susan is joined by two current Hightower Reff Law law clerks, Allison and Amit, who share their experiences joining the HRL team and all the perks that go along with being a law clerk at Hightower Reff Law along with the struggles they’ve encountered.


Susan Reff: What is a law clerk? A lot of people have heard the term and maybe don’t know what it is. On today’s podcast, we are going to learn about what a law clerk is, what they do, and we will introduce you to Hightower Reff Law’s two law clerks. 

Intro: Welcome to the Lady Lawyer League podcast. They are a league of lady lawyers in an all-female law firm in Omaha, Nebraska, called Hightower Reff Law. On this podcast, you’ll hear stories of what it’s like to be a lady lawyer and an entrepreneur. Now it’s time to talk about the law, share real-life stories about representing clients and discuss the current events of the week. It’s the Lady Lawyer League podcast with Susan Reff and Tracy Hightower-Henne. 

Susan: Hi, Allie. Hi, Amit. Welcome to the Lady Lawyer League podcast. 

Amit: Thanks, so happy to be here! 

Ali: Thanks 

Susan: Thanks. So currently, Ali and Amit are both students at Creighton Law School, and they are both law clerks at Hightower Reff Law. So how long? Let’s start. How long have you been law clerking with us, Ali? 

Allison: So I started last May. So almost a year now, 

Susan: Almost a year. And you’ve been here a couple of months, right? 

Amit: Yeah, I’ve been here just over a month. 

Susan: Awesome. So let’s talk about what a law clerk is, because that’s like the point of the podcast today, right? What, in your words what is a law clerk? And then we’ll go, and then I’ll tell you what I think it is. 

Allison: A law clerk here, we get to do a little bit of everything. We get to help draft documents. We get to do a lot of observing. We get to go to court and watch different hearings. We get to observe consults. So we kind of get to do a lot of everything. 

Amit: It’s actually really great. I always look at law school and med school as similar in terms of kind of how much work is involved. But, you know, after med school, usually people go to a residency and I kind of feel like being a law clerk is like being a resident while you’re going through law school, it’s where you kind of get all of your training, and it really does depend a lot on each law firm. So here, like Ali said, we kind of get to do a little of everything. 

Susan: And people use. Now there are people who are lawyers who have a title of law clerk, and those are people that work with a judge. And they’re usually kind of doing a lot of the research and writing the behind-the-scenes work for the judge, usually at a pretty high level like Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, you know. So we’re not using the term “law clerk” today in that sense, but that is another way the term law clerk is used. Law clerk is also a term for a law student who is working in a law firm. Fair to say, you think. Am I describing it the way everyone is thinking of it? 

Allison: Yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate. 

Susan: And there’s also internships that law students can do, but that’s different. 

Allison: Yeah, I think usually that’s when law students go and work for. I feel like usually it’s bigger companies where they do internships. So it’s a little different and … 

Susan: They’re getting, they’re usually getting school credit for that or they’re being supervised and they have to meet certain expectations for their law school or their class or something like that. 

Allison: Yeah, I think it’s one of their classes is being an extern for a judge or a company or whoever they’re doing it for. 

Susan: Yeah. So Amit, you’re a third-year law student, and Ali, you’re a second-year law student. So Amit’s getting ready for graduation pretty quick here. 

Amit: Oh, can’t come soon enough. Seven weeks away, so I’m pretty excited. 

Susan: And then Ali will have another year after this school year and then she will graduate. So let’s talk about why you decided to go to law school. 

Amit: Well, I can start. I am a nontraditional student, so I … 

Susan: What does that mean? 

Amit: That means that I did not come… 

Susan: You don’t you use books, you don’t like… 

Amit: I like to do it my own way. So, yeah, I actually had a career in between undergrad and going to law school. So I worked in several different fields and several different capacities, but always knew that I wanted to go back to grad school. And just because of how the world seemed to me sort of in the last five, 10 years, I realized that I didn’t have an understanding of what rules kind of govern all of us. And, you know, just in terms of the political situation in the world today and how everyone seems to have a lot of understanding of, or opinions on things of which they don’t understand, it was really kind of a driving factor for me personally to go back to law school to learn a little bit more about all the things that that we all sort of live by. All the rules that we live by, and constitutional law and things like that were what I was looking forward to the most. I did not realize I was going to learn more about contracts and property than I was constitutional law. But you know, so that’s kind of what drove me to law school. And also, I was just really interested in sort of helping people directly. And that I think law school allows you to do. 

Susan: Yeah, awesome, you know, law is really, can really be a service-oriented field if that’s the track you end up in. And here at Hightower Law, obviously we’re a service industry and we work directly with clients, day to day all the time. So what made you decide to go to law school, Ali? 

Allison: So I was a psychology major and I was originally … 

Susan: Ooh, deep in the brain. 

Allison: Yeah, pretty much. But I was originally, I wanted to go to dental school, so I was pre-dent, and I was taking all the prereqs for that, and took Organic Chemistry 1. And it was just too much to handle. And I didn’t want to do the next semester. So I just kept going with my psych degree and I took a psychology of law class and I absolutely loved it. And my teachers were current law students, so I just talked to them. Yeah, it was actually really cool. So I just talked to them more, and I really liked what we were learning. So I just decided to take the LSAT and then apply for law school. 

Susan: You know, it’s interesting. We’ve learned by having a lot of the attorneys on the podcast here that a lot of lawyers started in like a pre-healthcare field, you know, pre-med, pre-dental school, maybe nursing. And then they end up like, “Holy cow, this heavy science isn’t for me.” But I also think a lot of people in pre-healthcare like the idea of helping people and that people connection you would get in a healthcare field that you can also get in law. 

Allison: Yeah, that was definitely, I wanted to work with people and to help people. And so this was just a different way of doing it. And yeah, yeah, you still get to work with people every day and help people, but it’s just different. 

Susan: Yeah. Now I know when we were interviewing with you, you mentioned that you have a lot of connections with other lawyers, like friends, maybe some family members who are lawyers who kind of, you know, gave you some advice about law school and/or clerking jobs. So how much did that weigh into whether you were going to go to law school or not? You know, what other people thought and the advice they gave you? 

Amit: Well, the friends of mine who told me to go to law school, I’m not friends with anymore. No, they were really helpful. 

Susan: They owe you big time. 

Amit: That’s right. They misrepresented it. Yeah, I’m trying to figure out whether or not there’s a cause for action there. No, it was actually really helpful because, you know, being nontraditional, I was worried about whether or not I could kind of handle some of the rigors of it. You know, we talked about Ali and I had actually a very similar background. I mean, I was pre-med. So we both had a lot of science and I actually really liked the hard science. I was also a psychology major who majored in neuropsych. 

Susan: So you’ve both diagnosed me already, right?  

Amit: We have.  

Ali: We have meetings about it.  

Amit: Yeah, yeah, we talk a lot. Yeah, but they were really very helpful because many of my friends have either law firms or have been associates for a very long time, and they kind of told me what types of things are important to look for, not just in law school, but after you graduate and when you work for a firm to be discerning about the culture that was at a firm, the partners at a firm usually set the tone. I’ve got friends who are in that situation or have been part of that situation for a long time. So that was really helpful because it made me realize that culture was such an important part of where I was going to work.

Susan: Yeah, yeah. And I think that that’s being emphasized a lot more in the work world than it used to be. And it started as work-life balance, and it was really only for women, right? It was like touted as, “Oh, can women have work life balance?” And now it’s I think, you know, for Ali’s generation, they’ve grown up like expecting this from their careers or, you know, really striving to find it. So do you have lawyers in your family, Ali? 

Allison: I do not. I don’t think I even really knew anybody who was a lawyer before I decided to go to law school. It was kind of a very quick decision. But yeah. 

Susan: And here you are. 

Allison: Yeah, and here I am. It worked out pretty good. 

Susan: So you both have worked in other law firms, too, before you came and worked with Hightower Reff Law. That’s right. So tell like, let’s talk about those experiences and you know, what that was like? And did that shape your decision, you know, at all about future choices? 

Allison: Yeah. So in undergrad after I decided I wanted to go to law school, I worked for a firm in Lincoln that did mostly collections and a little bit of personal injury. And I loved all of the people there. It was great. Definitely made me still want to go to law school and keep going with that. But I think it did change my mind about wanting to do like collections or tax law or business law. Stuff like that kind of changed my mind on that. 

Susan: Yeah. So you kind of got to see two different areas of the law, like how it works behind the scenes. Yeah, that’s … those are great experiences, too, I think. 

Allison: Yeah, it definitely helped me have a little bit better idea of what I wanted to go into or what type of law I wanted to practice. 

Susan: Or what you didn’t want to do. 

Allison: Yeah, more specifically, what I didn’t want to do. 

Amit: It’s a really important thing to know what you don’t want to do. I had a similar experience. I worked for a law firm that kind of did a little of everything, and I had two reasons. I knew the partners socially and they’re friends of mine. And so it was a great opportunity to sort of get a survey experience with a lot of different types of law. And I loved it and I was ready to work there after graduation, but I kind of realized talking to Tracy Hightower along the way a little bit … 

Susan: Who’s she? 

Amit: Yeah, couldn’t be here today. No, I mean, I just thought that … 

Susan: They don’t have four microphones. So if you two were going to be on, it was just going to have to be three of us. 

Amit: That’s true. So she’s out. We pushed her out. But it was, I found that this firm definitely had a lot more of a focus that was in line with what I wanted to do. And I did kind of learn where I wasn’t as interested working at my last law firm. And also, I think that when you have a good culture, which I did at the last law firm, it’s nice to know that you’re going to a place that’s at least as good. Yeah, so. 

Susan: Well, that’s nice to hear. Thank you, Amit. I appreciate that, you know. So do you think you can say that there are certain areas of law you definitely don’t want to practice? 

Amit: I think so. I will be honest. I don’t know that I can say that definitively because I’m still learning so much. And there are a lot of areas that I thought I wouldn’t be interested in. All I know is that I’m not interested in working for big law at all. 

Susan: Well, tell people what big law means, because I think probably here at the table, we know what big law means, but maybe the general population doesn’t know. 

Amit: Yeah. You know, in … 

Allison: The episode of Suits, or the show Suits sums it up. 

Amit: Right? Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it is. I mean, I worked for a large Fortune 50 company for like 18 years before I went to law school, and the culture is very impersonal. I’m sure lots of people listening have worked for large companies, and that is a whole different culture. And so in this city, there’s a handful of law firms that have, you know, 100 lawyers that work for them and they do a lot of corporate work, mergers and acquisitions and bankruptcies on a large scale. To me, it seems like it’s very impersonal. It’s not as service-oriented as I wanted to be, and the culture is oftentimes not as organic. And I feel like if you have that culture, it translates to the clients you talk to because they can appreciate it. They know they’re talking to a person as opposed to just a representative of a large company. And I know I didn’t want to do that. So that’s part of what drove me to, I did an interview with a single company like that. I went to some of the OCIs and I had friends that were there. My nextdoor neighbor works and talks to me a little bit about going over to that large company, and it didn’t appeal to me at all. 

Susan: Yeah. What I always said was, you said Big Law. I said, I don’t want to make old, rich white guys more rich. 

Amit: Yeah. Like, moving piles of money around. 

Susan: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I like to see the cause and effect, you know, on a day-to-day basis more than, you know, being that cog in the wheel. Yeah. One of the things I think, too, that’s very different about our law firm than like a big law firm or a firm with, you know, more lawyers than what we have is you actually get to see the outcome of your work. Whereas I think at some of those firms, like especially when you’re newer, you do one piece of the puzzle and you maybe never get looped in. What was the result? Was it successful? Did what you worked on even matter? Did it make a difference? And for some people, that’s not important. You know, they’re comfortable doing their part, and that’s OK. But that’s not for me at all. That was, I never wanted to work at a law firm. A big law firm. I was always thinking, you know, government or small law firm. 

Amit: So there’s another little wrinkle in this whole law clerk thing. Once you finish your second year of law school, you can get what’s called senior certification, which basically allows you to handle cases on a limited basis directly under the supervision of a licensed attorney. And that’s nice because if you have the right law firm, they’ll give you experience directly handling things that you weren’t able to do or might not be able to do otherwise. 

Susan: And our goal here, we’ve never had a senior certified law clerk until Amit came, because our other law clerks have always been, have not been third years. So that’s, you have to have finished your second year or in your third year. I can’t. 

Allison: You have to finish your second year so you can start in that summer in between. Yeah. So in a couple of months, yeah. 

Susan: I mean, our goal is to give our law clerks, you know, real-life experience. And being a senior certified law clerk is definitely one of the best ways to do it. When I was a senior certified law clerk, I was clerking at the Douglas County public defender’s office, and they were in this weird phase where they couldn’t hire any attorneys. The county was like on a hiring freeze or something, but they were short staffed. So myself and another senior certified law clerk basically were given two full caseloads and told, “Call the people, call the prosecutor, organize the case, blah blah blah.” We could work out plea agreements. We could talk with the judge. We just couldn’t appear in court unless we were with another attorney. And so then we would just pick up the phone and be like, OK, we have to actually go to court on this because, you know, in criminal cases, you don’t, you’re in court when you’re pleading doing a motion or being sentenced. Otherwise, a lot of it’s like those negotiations. So I’d pick up the phone and call and they would just send a random hot body up and that person would just sit there with me and I would do the whole thing, and I would love to be able to give that experience to someone else where here’s the file you call the client you, you know, you work out a deal. I’ll review everything you know, I’ll hold your hand, whatever guidance you need, and then we’ll get there at the end to whatever the outcome of the case is going to be. But you really have been able to see the case from start to finish and the two of you, you know, with you’re still going to school, though, like you have to balance work. 

Amit: Yeah, yeah. That’s the toughest thing. 

Susan: Work, schoolwork and then have a life, you know, and we definitely support that here, too. So how do you do that as a law clerk? How do you balance your homework? And oh gosh. And each area — law work and then like social life and family. 

Allison: And I think this semester or this whole year, I kind of got lucky. Creighton, I feel like for the most part, doesn’t, after your first year, you don’t have classes on Friday. So I get to be here, you know, for that full day. And then thankfully, the way my schedule worked out is I only have classes in the afternoons, so I get to be here every single day, at least for a little bit. Yeah. So that worked out pretty well. 

Susan: So when do you do your homework? 

Allison: I try to do it every night, but I try to get a lot done on Sundays and then like read for the week on Sunday and then just kind of refresh each night. But yeah, Amit and I were both on an international moot court competition team. And so that was kind of taking up a lot of our weekend time as well and outside of school as well. So that was kind of hard to balance that on top of school, on top of work and then still attempting to have a social life too. Yeah. 

Amit: Yeah, it’s hard actually because of COVID last year, and I didn’t get a chance to experience a lot of the things I wanted to in law school. So I sort of overloaded this last semester. You know, Creighton, they really want you to take a lot of classes that are important for the bar. So I have, up until the competition ended that Ali just talked about, we really, I don’t think I had much balance at all. And I would also do my homework on the weekends. But now it’s, we got about 18 hours a week back after the competition ended. So it’s nice to be able to finally, you know, say hi to my kids. 

Susan: Yeah. And yeah, what is, what’s it like? I’m going to ask you for your specific perspective on it, about being the nontraditional student, being, you know, a married person with kids like, I would say more often than not, people go pretty quickly to law school after undergrad, so maybe a year or two off or a handful. But I’d say you’re not the traditional law student in that most of them are not married or don’t at least have two kids. And you’re an established person, you know, like you’re … 

Amit: A real grownup. 

Susan: You’re not, you’re not 25. Yeah, we’ll just say that. 

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