Recently, my law clerk accepted a new job with a local government agency. I'm very happy for her but very sad for me. She did great work and made my life a lot easier for the two years she was with me. I have gone through this sort of transition four times now, and I know the next couple months are going to be tough as I hire and train a new clerk.
Most of the public has very little idea what it is that law clerks do in the judicial system. Law clerks are some of the unsung heroes in the courthouse. Typically, they are recent law-school graduates, and the position is their first "real" job in the profession. In spite of being an entry-level position, the job is extremely important.
They conduct legal research into the issues in a case, are responsible for keeping track of all exhibits at trials, and draft the jury instructions for trials. Many of the orders and memoranda that ultimately get signed by a judge were generated initially by a law clerk. The judge has to have the final say, but the law clerk's importance cannot be overstated.
Although I worked in the courthouse for a long time before becoming a judge, I did not appreciate just how much judges rely on their clerks. The most surprising thing for me when I took the job was how little time I had to research and write. Desk time for judges is a rare commodity because we are in court most of the day. Some of the issues we have to address in our written orders are extremely complex, and there simply is not enough time for the judge to do it all and still get home at a decent hour. So, often it is the law clerk that can dive into those projects and do the detailed research required while the judge is on the bench.
Similarly, the court can receive hundreds of pages of documents for consideration on motions or court trials, and the law clerk can play a vital role by helping to organize, summarize, and prioritize that information.
On a more personal level, the law clerk is an invaluable sounding board for the judge. Most judges in Minnesota only get two designated employees: a court reporter and a law clerk. We spend a lot of time together, and often the judge's final decision on a case is the result of multiple conversations among that group talking through all the facts and issues. You get to know each other pretty well.
Part of the judge's job is to mentor law clerks and get them ready to be practicing attorneys in the community. They have a front-row seat to watch a lot of attorneys in court and then get to see what works (or doesn't work) with the judge afterward.
Most law clerks are looking to move on after a year or two, and it's tough to watch them go. But I am very grateful to have such bright young attorneys helping me do the work of the courts.
Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.