A common and useful summer legal position that many law students pursue is a judicial externship with a federal or state judge. A number of my 1L students from last year recently completed summer judicial externships. I asked one of my students, Dan Faichney, to write a guest post about his experience as an extern to Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Dan’s excellent post appears below. Feel free to pose questions in the Comments section.
Order in the Court (and on Paper): What I Learned as a Judicial Extern
By Daniel Faichney
I. About Me
My name is Dan Faichney. I am a second-year law student at Northwestern University. I’m also a member of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology here at NU. Before coming to law school, I served as a Program Director for a nonprofit organization in Chicago. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Michigan, and a Master of Nonprofit Administration degree from North Park University. Last year, I was a student in Professor Inglehart’s Communication and Legal Reasoning (“CLR”) class. In my spare time, I enjoy long-distance cycling, improv, and film photography.
II. My 1L Summer Judicial Externship
A. In General
During my 1L summer, I served as an Extern to the Honorable Ruben Castillo, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois. Concurrently, I participated in Northwestern’s Judicial Practicum class with Professors Spies-Roth and Dillingham. Many other members of the Class of 2014 served as Judicial Externs in Chicago over the summer, and still more served as Externs elsewhere around the country. If you’re interested in litigation practice, or if you intend to pursue a Judicial Clerkship after law school, externships offer an excellent opportunity to hone your legal writing skills and observe oral advocacy in action.
You’ll hear more about externships during this year, but one thing you might like to know now is that no two externship opportunities are alike: judges at both the State and Federal level, in trial courts as well as appellate courts, accept externs. In addition to serving as an Extern in a court of general jurisdiction, you may also pursue an opportunity in a specialized court: Federal Bankruptcy Courts host externs, as do state Domestic Relations Courts and many others. The common thread that runs through each of these opportunities is the opportunity to produce written work on live cases. I found this opportunity invaluable, and accordingly I would now like to share some thoughts on it with you.
B. Written Assignments
Although each judge structures externships differently, it is safe to say that all externs research and write. During my externship, I worked on three assignments: two draft opinions, and one memorandum. The opinions addressed pending motions before the Court, and the memorandum addressed a novel issue arising under a federal statute. At the outset of all three assignments, my Judge’s law clerks met with me to discuss the assignment; they also printed all of the relevant material from the record.
My opinion drafts addressed two different stages of litigation, the first an earlier stage (before discovery, or the production of evidence) and the second a later stage (after the parties had entered much of the evidence into the record). Because the second opinion assignment required me to make considerable use of the record in order to conduct the necessary law-to-fact analysis, it took more time to complete. I learned a great deal while doing so.
From a factual standpoint, my memorandum assignment was less complex than either of the two opinions. From a legal standpoint, however, it took in a vast array of issues, both procedural and substantive. As you may already know, unlike a court opinion, the objective of a legal memo is not to decide an issue, but to analyze it. The audience is a decision-maker, whether that be a judge or another attorney. Hence, in my memo assignment, my goal was to identify and analyze all of the potential issues that might arise in connection with the matter before the Court. In this way, it both surveyed the case law related to the issue and placed the matter before the Court in the context created by that case law. Since memo-writing technique was familiar to me from CLR, I believe that I worked more efficiently on this assignment as compared with the other two.
During CLR, you will learn how to organize your research and structure your written work. As an Extern, I found that the research skills and writing techniques I learned in CLR were transferrable. Additionally, in Judge Castillo’s chambers, the iterative writing process – facts, then outline, then the first draft, and finally the second draft – was familiar, too. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll walk though the opinion writing process. I’ve chosen to write about the opinion writing process instead of the memo writing process because it generates a type of written product that CLR students do not produce. In explaining how the process works, I hope to highlight, by example, the commonalities between this type of writing and the writing you will do in CLR .
To begin my assignments, I met with my supervising law clerk to discuss the matter before the court and receive the necessary filings (i.e. briefs and other supporting documents). I then began reviewing the filings. After doing so, I drafted a facts section. This helped me to spell out what happened and clarify what was at stake. It also generated a tangible written product. With this product in hand, I met with one of the Judge’s law clerks to discuss the next steps. Since I had read through the filings by this point, I had a basic understanding of the arguments made by each side. I discussed these arguments and the key facts with my supervising law clerk and, with her feedback, began creating an outline. This outline included the arguments made by each party as well as the case law authorities they cited.
Next, I began conducting my own research. Since it is necessary to make sure that the parties have fully and fairly stated the doctrine, I checked the cases cited by the parties and also looked to other sources. I started with treatises, and from there I read other cases until I had a good sense of the state of the law. While outlining styles vary widely from person to person, I found it helpful to make a long but thorough outline first and remove the redundant or unnecessary material later. After my research began going “in circles” – that is, when it turned up the same rules and similar fact situations again and again – I trimmed my outline and prepared to begin the next stage: writing a draft.
Before I started working on the draft, I met again with my supervising law clerk. At these meetings, she provided feedback on my research and analysis. With these comments – and a solid outline in hand – I began to write. Writing was much less daunting with a comprehensive outline in hand. All the same, it took time and attention to considerations that became relevant at this stage. For instance, each Judge structures his or her opinions differently, and each has a preferred writing style. One of my responsibilities as an Extern was to make sure that my writing adhered to these standards. Judges may give you a manual, or provide training, on their standards; it is also possible to pick up cues from past opinions. I used all the resources I could find. In writing a draft, the expectation – and, hence, my goal – was that the product be publishable. To achieve this goal, I read and re-read my draft, and generally proceeded carefully: I checked each source, citation, and sentence for errors, and made sure that the writing was clear and logical. When – as in the research phase – I felt as though I was going “in circles,” I knew I had reached the end of this stage.
After completing my initial draft and meeting with my supervising law clerk a second time, I made another round of edits and turned in my final draft. At this stage, the law clerks and Judge may or may not make considerable further changes to the written product. Regardless of any changes they make, however, your work as an Extern will likely make a significant contribution the final opinion. If you have taken the necessary care to be thorough and clear, this contribution will no doubt be valuable to the Judge and to his or her law clerks.
III. Lessons Learned
While completing my assignments, I learned two important lessons: (1) get a good sense of what is expected of you before starting your project, and (2) be as thorough as your schedule permits you to be.
As to the first point, most Judges and law clerks will provide you with clear directions. Follow them closely. It might help to create a checklist based on the instructions you’ve been given. As you go, you may find that you need to seek clarification on some things: page limits, word limits, expectations about time spent doing research, rules governing citations, substantive legal issues, and more. Instead of assuming or guessing what your Judge or supervising law clerks expect of you, just ask. At a couple of points during my research and writing process, well-timed answers to important questions saved me a lot of time and helped me to do a better job. Speaking of timing, if you’re worried about something, don’t wait until the last minute to bring it up: do it promptly, be upfront, and you’ll save yourself and your supervisors many headaches.
Secondly, it is important to be thorough and timely. If your Judge gives you deadlines, or expects you to complete a defined number of assignments over the summer, develop a delivery schedule and see if your supervising law clerk or Judge approves. It may make more sense to do this on an assignment-by-assignment basis, and the schedule may change depending on the nature of the matter before the Court. Nevertheless, if you establish some guideline, you’ll be able to manage your workload better and will avoid falling into legal research “rabbit holes” (those points where you start seeing diminishing returns on your effort). Once you have some baseline expectations in place, you’re free to hit – as you should – all of the pertinent issues, without fear that you might run out of time.
This summer, I put my legal research and writing skills to work as a Judicial Extern. In the process of doing so, I learned a great deal about researching and writing efficiently and effectively. Whether you choose to pursue an Externship or another opportunity, know that what you learn in your first-year legal writing class will provide you with a useful repertoire of techniques. Know, also, that a solid understanding of project management skills – understanding the relevant expectations, establishing a schedule, organizing your resources, and making the necessary adjustments as you go – will help you to succeed. As a law student, I’ve learned that thoroughness, accuracy, and efficiency are all important elements of good legal writing. As an Extern, I’ve moved closer to achieving a good balance between the three.