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Posted April 15, 2008

Benefits of U.S. District Court Clerkship Abound, Judge Says

Stefan R. Underhill
Stefan R. Underhill

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Rob Seal

Clerking for a U.S. District Court judge is a great way for young lawyers to accrue invaluable experience, training and exposure to the legal system, a federal judge told a group of Law School students in Caplin Pavilion on Monday.

“I’m a strong believer that your clerkship will be the best job you ever have, unless and until you become a judge yourself,” said Judge Stefan R. Underhill, who serves the District of Connecticut.

Underhill, who was a Rhodes Scholar in his undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, touted the U.S. District Court clerkship experience as an ideal fit for those drawn to the law by a desire to further the cause of justice.

“No one is telling you what position you want to take,” Underhill said. “No one is saying, ‘Your client has to have this outcome of the case.’ No one is paying you to say something. Instead, what you’re doing is working with a judge and trying to make sure that everyone gets a fair hearing, that the facts come out and the truth comes out.”

Clerks work directly with their judges and get valuable insight into the reasoning and thought process that goes into judicial decisions, Underhill said. A typical clerk will observe more courtroom action than other young lawyers, a notion Underhill said he explains to his clerks, who serve for two years.

“I tell them, ‘Look, in two years you’re going to have four or five years of litigation experience, because you’re going to see so much more than anyone at any firm is going to do in that time.’”

Underhill also fondly recalled his own clerkship with federal Judge Jon O. Newman on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

“He had such a depth of experience and such a broad range of interests. He was brilliant, he was careful. Being around a person like that was really inspirational. I just felt like this was the greatest thing since sliced bread."

And the clerks’ reputations are permanently associated with the reputations of their judges, a practice that Underhill said benefited him when he was selected for his own judgeship.

“I’m convinced that being a Newman clerk helped me be considered for becoming a judge, quite frankly.”

In addition to the legal experience and benefit of having a judge as a mentor, there are other, more subtle advantages to clerking for a U.S. District Court judge, he said.

“There are no timesheets. If you’ve ever been a summer associate somewhere, you know what I’m talking about.”

“You are free of the constraints of reporting your time, and free of the constraints of thinking, ‘Am I spending too much of the clients money?’”

Underhill said most judges aren’t politically motivated, and share a deep dedication to the notion of justice.

“You hear about judges that are liberal and judges that are conservative. Some of that is true, but I don’t think very many judges have any agenda of any kind. I think most judges are ingrained down to their soul to try and do justice, and that rubs off on you.”

He also advised law students to apply for clerkships in an area where they have a tie, whether it is geographic or personal, such as sharing an alma mater with a judge.

Underhill said students going through the application process should take care to provide letter of recommendation from those who are best acquainted with their skills and work, not just their grades.

Aspiring clerks should also mind their social networking Web sites prior to an interview, he said, recalling an instance in which his clerks discovered a compromising photo of one applicant just minutes before the candidate’s interview.  If judges can find embarrassing pictures or messages, so can other lawyers or potential employers, Underhill said.

“Just clean it up,” he said.

Once hired, clerks fill a vital function in the legal system, and give great aid to their judges in return for the experience and benefit they take from the position, he said. 

“My law clerks are my lawyers,” Underhill said. “They are giving me advice. They are aware of what is going on.”

Yared Getachew, the director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, said he was grateful for Underhill’s visit.

“It’s a testament to his deep belief in the benefits of a judicial clerkship and his commitment to all things public service that he was willing to come here,” Getachew said.

This was Underhill’s second visit to the Law School this year. In February, he was a panelist at the Conference on Public Service and the Law.

On Monday, Federal Magistrate Judge Sandra Moore Wells of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will speak about the benefits of a clerkship with a federal magistrate judge.

• Reported by ROB SEAL