Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Clerking for a Federal Judge: The Ultimate - Lifelong - Mentorship (Part II: Learning How to Learn)

Ok, it's time to get back on track, and write more about my federal clerkship experience (which I cannot believe was ten years ago, this August).  Having secured the job, and advised my family that I would be moving even further away from home, I started to focus on the magnitude of what was really happening; that I was a law clerk for a federal judge.  What exactly did that mean, other than the obvious brief writing and research. I had no idea, but I was more than ready to find out (insert extreme levels of intimidation and excitement).

Once I moved to Abingdon, and met all of the other judges, fellow law clerks, courthouse staff and security officers, I was off and running.  My very first assignment was to finish an opinion that had not been completed by my predecessor. (Not because my predecessor was lazy or inept, but simply due to the timing of the transition). It was no small task, and one that consumed me for weeks.  I tell you this only to note that because federal clerkships are typically one year in length, on the job training is the nature of the game.

With my first assignment under my belt, and a pile of other assignments waiting, I had plenty to do (which again, is the nature of the beast).  And while writing and research were at times enjoyable, even for me, they were not my favorite part of the job.  Unlike most other clerks in the country, I had a very unique opportunity to work for a judge that was legally blind (not totally blind, or even dramatically blind, but legally blind).  As a result, my fellow clerk and I took turns driving Judge Williams back and forth from his house.  We alternated weeks to make it easier.  Why exactly was driving the judge back and forth from his home the favorite part of the job one might ask? It's quite simple, when Judge Williams and I traveled together, it was my opportunity to ask questions and learn.  It was my opportunity to drain all of the wisdom and knowledge out of a man 50 years my senior, and with exponentially more experience.  Throw in the fact that Judge Williams lived an hour and half away (which caused me to spend at least three hours in the car with him each time I drove), and you can imagine all that I heard and learned during those twelve months.

When you are "at work," the time for water cooler talk, other than over lunch, is very limited.  Compound that with the fact that judges (both federal and state) are very busy.  It is well known that at the state and federal levels (at least in Virginia), that judges carry heavy dockets, and are required to do more with less, especially given today's economic environment.  Even ten years ago when I was clerking, the judges were extremely busy,  and had limited time to impart wisdom.

Every day that I drove Judge Williams was an honor.  Not because I was traveling with a federal judge, but because I was spending time with a man who had more knowledge in either of his pinkies, than I had in my entire body.  Had I not been provided this unique opportunity, I may never have known that Judge Williams shared a dorm room with Herman Wouk at The U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (and ultimately became a character in Mr. Wouk's The Caine Mutiny).  I likely would have never learned that Judge Williams was elected Commonwealth's Attorney in Lee County, Virginia as a write-in candidate during his second year of law school, and that he was elected one of only two Republicans to the Virginia State Senate long before I was born.  And I certainly would have never known all of the stories that I have been sworn to secrecy not to tell (insert inside joke here).

Judge Williams is a great man, and someone whom I learned a lot from (and continue to learn a lot from).  Of course he taught me how to draft judicial opinions, field calls from curious attorneys and, prepare for a week of hearing oral arguments in the Sixth Circuit, where he sat by designation annually.  But none of that mattered.  None of that is what I took away from my time with Judge Williams.  What I learned how to learn during my clerkship, was how to ask questions about life and history, and all things revolving around Judge Williams' human experiences.  Judge Williams' wealth of knowledge in the legal world was superior and well respected, but it paled in comparison to his life experiences, and those were the stories and insights that I soaked up during my clerkship.

For those of you interested in clerking for a federal (or state) judge, you are first and foremost charged to do your job, and to do it well.  I expect that will not be a problem for any of you.  Beyond that however, I charge you to take as much time as possible to get to know your judge (or judges) on a human level.  Dig as hard as you need to, to reach those stories and life experiences that matter most to the judge.  When your short year (or two) is over, you will certainly be prepared to enter the legal world, as a professional.  But it will be those shared life experiences, hearing those stories over a buffet lunch at Stringers for example (another inside joke), that will truly make a difference in your development as a human being.  It will be those shared journeys that will further your ability to learn how to learn.  And that my friends, at least in my humble opinion, is what it is all about.

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