Head of the Class: 2015 Graduate With Top GPA Talks Clerkships, Tips for Law School Success

Joel Johnson

At UVA Law, Joel Johnson was an articles development editor for the Virginia Law Review and a member of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.

September 16, 2015

Joel Johnson has been given the Faculty Award for Academic Excellence for graduating with the highest GPA in the Class of 2015.

The Decatur, Illinois, native and Belmont University graduate is now clerking for Judge T.S. Ellis III at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, and will clerk in New York City the following term for Judge Robert D. Sack on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

"Joel is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable students I have ever taught," said UVA Law professor A. E. Dick Howard. "Joel is blessed with a superb mind, excels at research and writing, and tackles every task with an admirable sense of purpose. He will make his mark in this world, and we will be glad to claim him as one of our graduates."

Johnson, who in law school was an articles development editor for the Virginia Law Review and a member of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, also received the Margaret G. Hyde Award at graduation, given to an outstanding member of the graduating class whose scholarship, character, personality, activities in the affairs of the school and promise of efficiency have, in the opinion of the faculty, entitled him or her to special recognition.

Johnson recently took us inside his experiences as a clerk and offered advice for students seeking to excel in law school and obtain a clerkship.

What is a typical week like for you as a clerk for a federal judge?

Some weeks we have trials, and each Friday we have hearings for dispositive civil motions and criminal motions and sentencing. My co-clerk, Adam Crews '15, and I work throughout the week to prepare for the upcoming Friday and to tie up loose ends from the previous Friday. On a typical day, I am working on a few big research and writing projects — bench memoranda or opinion drafts — and am putting out fires related to other cases as they arise. This includes responding to motions and preparing short orders for Judge Ellis. Adam and I often bounce ideas off one another, and the judge frequently checks in to discuss the cases in detail. I've been surprised at how thorough our writing and re-writing process is.

On Fridays, we help prepare Judge Ellis for all the cases he will be hearing that day and take notes during the court proceedings. Sometimes, the judge will take a recess in order to discuss an issue that has arisen in oral argument. At the end of the day, we generally have a status meeting with the judge, during which we take stock of all our active cases. Each clerk typically has around 10 cases at any given time. During these meetings, we also discuss the key issues from our cases in detail among the group.

What have you learned from your job so far? What do you hope to learn?

Clerking requires a type of thinking that is importantly different than that of a law student. In law school, one learns to identify and explore ambiguities in the law. As a clerk, our job is to help resolve those ambiguities. We still spot issues, and research and analyze the case law, but unlike law school, we also have to reach an answer. I'm much better grappling with the questions than I am finding definitive answers. Over time, I hope to improve at this.

Observing district court proceedings on a regular basis quickly humanizes the law, making clear that every decision has real implications for real people. This may seem obvious, but looking at parties — particularly criminal defendants — while they listen to the arguments and the judgments of the court brings the human element to the fore. In law school, students get into the habit of thinking that the coherence of particular doctrinal areas and the legal system as a whole is paramount. As with any system, coherence is, of course, important. But the focus in district court is reaching the right result for the particular parties.

I've also learned a great deal about motion practice. Being in court each week, we get to see lawyers of all skill levels. Judge Ellis often identifies which techniques work and which don't, and I'm starting to develop a better sense of the characteristics of a good litigator.

Going forward, I hope to improve at working quickly without sacrificing thoroughness. And I hope to master Civil Procedure, which comes up on a daily basis.

What advice do you have for law students considering clerkships or going through the application process?

The clerkship process is like the Wild West. There aren't many rules, and many variables are beyond your control. So, my best advice is to control the few things you can control and try not to worry about the rest. Besides doing your best in class, you should build relationships with professors. In my experience, professors are the key to landing a clerkship because professors, unlike students, are repeat players. As a 1L, I was very shy around professors, and I regret it now. Keep in mind that professors want to get to know you and are committed to your success.

My other piece of advice is to keep your ear to the ground. So much of the clerkship process depends on having good information. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to stay in the know. I suggest discussing the process with a few friends with similar goals. I was slow to do this, but once I did, I learned a lot of useful information.

Now that you have an idea of what being a clerk is like, are there any classes you were glad you took, and/or wish you had taken?

I took a broad range of doctrinal courses, and I'm glad I did because broad exposure has proven helpful. Not only did this allow me to learn a variety of topics, but it also enabled me to spot patterns across doctrinal areas, which is beneficial when I'm faced with a new area of law.

As for specific classes, Federal Courts is essential. I've pulled out my outline a few times already. There are several good options at UVA, but I recommend taking Fed Courts with Dean [John] Jeffries if at all possible. The subject matter is difficult and complex, but his lectures are an absolute delight. Other classes related to procedure will be useful as well. I took Conflict of Laws with Professor [Michael] Collins and, having relied upon that knowledge already, can't imagine trying to navigate the choice of law rules without some background in the subject matter. Legislation is another incredibly useful class because so much of what federal courts do is statutory. And I highly recommend any course with Professor [Douglas] Laycock. I took Remedies and Con Law II: Civil Liberties from him. Laycock presents material in a practical way that translates well to a clerkship.

I also suggest taking some writing classes. Traditional law school exams do a lot of things well, but they do a poor job of producing lawyers who can write lucidly. Clerks are expected to write a lot and to write well. So, take some paper courses, work on an independent research project, participate in a litigation clinic during your third year, or do all of the above.

Whatever you do, be sure to leave room for a few classes that are simply for your own edification. For me, this meant classes that emphasize theory, such as Jurisprudence with Professor [Charles] Barzun, Con Law II: Law and the Theory of Equal Protection with Professor [Deborah] Hellman, and Law & Economics with Professor [Michael] Gilbert. If you take some classes you find interesting, you are more likely to do well in them, to remember the content, and to become a more interesting, well-rounded lawyer.

You graduated with the top GPA, so you developed skills or study habits as a law student that served you well. What advice do you have for 1Ls hoping for similar academic success?

Don't get too bogged down with the facts of cases. Knowing the facts is crucial to doing well on the occasional cold call, but for the exam, you don't need detailed factual knowledge. With any case, ask yourself why the case is in the casebook. You should be able to answer in a sentence or two. These are the sentences that belong in your outline.

As you approach the exam, don't fall into the trap that finishing your outline means you are prepared for your final. A completed outline is only the beginning. Be sure you build time into your study schedule to study the outline and to practice applying the rule statements to various fact patterns. For me, practice exams were crucial, especially during the first semester. I recommend allocating as much time as you can to practice exams during the days leading up to the exam.

Most importantly, take my advice with a grain of salt. There is no sure-fire way to study. The key is to pick a plan early, stick to it, and put on your blinders. Much of the pressure during the first year is psychological, and it arises from unnecessary comparisons of yourself to your perception of others. As a 1L, no one really knows what they're doing, no matter how confident they might appear. Don't be fooled.

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