Though lawyers get all the credit for successfully arguing a case and getting positive results for their client, the truth is that a law clerk is often an important behind-the-scenes part of that eventual victory. These professionals are often referred to as the “body men” of the law profession, since it’s their job to make sure that the practicing attorney or judge for whom they work is always equipped with the latest case law, technical research, precedent, and client information needed to work successfully in the office, at the court, and with witnesses who might benefit the case. The typical responsibilities of a law clerk can be broken down into several key components in most of today’s busiest legal practices.
Legal Research and Understanding of the Law
A law clerk is almost always centrally concerned with finding the right source of legal research and precedent regarding a case that their supervising attorney has agreed to defend. This means that a law clerk must have an intimate understanding of how to use a court reporter, how to peruse the United States Code Annotated for statutes that govern how a case might be handled, and how to search state laws or persuasive authorities for information that might further benefit the case.
At the conclusion of their research, law clerks will often prepare a brief or memorandum that dictates how identical or similar matters were decided before. They’ll place special emphasis on what is known as “binding authority” in this brief. Simply put, binding authorities include state or federal statutes, or any court decision made within the attorney’s home jurisdiction. They’ll next use persuasive authorities, or laws and decisions outside their jurisdiction, to further enhance the case’s chances of success.
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Working as a Go Between for Clients, Courts, and Attorneys
Most law clerks pair their responsibility for conducting sound legal research with a need to be the go-between for a law firm and outside sources. Once they discover precedent for a case, they’ll often have to produce the right brief and file it either electronically or in person with the court that is hearing the case. They may be responsible for conducting client intake or interviewing witnesses, and they may be responsible for communicating an attorney’s needs to those clients and witnesses when the attorney is not available to do so.
In this way, the law clerk is considered a key communicator within the law firm or the court where they are employed. By no means are they considered anything close to a receptionist or secretary, but they will certainly help clients understand what’s going on behind the scenes when the attorney cannot reach them him or herself.
Law Clerks Do Not Give Legal Advice
Law clerks do plenty of things: research, documentation, filing, interaction with the courts, and handling of clients or witnesses. One absolutely vital thing that they do not do is give legal advice to clients or practice the law themselves, according to the University of Iowa. This is strictly forbidden by the American Bar Association and it has major ethical complications for the firm if any law clerk is found giving such advice. While law clerks may feel qualified to give tips and advice, they must always decline to do so and instead refer an individual to their supervising attorney instead.
A Position of Vital Importance in Today’s Law Firms
There is perhaps no job more important than a law clerk in today’s law firms and courts. The modern law clerk helps to bring down costs, speed up the legal process, and communicate with clients adept from start to finish, and that makes them an asset to any seasoned attorney.