It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good. You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare – or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument.
Even if you’re clerking for an obscure political hack (which is the norm), as a clerk you qualify to skip out of biglaw hell. The deal – as you probably know – is thus: you get to work non-law firm hours for a year, then return to the firm as though you’d suffered with the other monkeys. If you finish two clerkships, you double your fun and skip two years of Hell-on-Earth – then return with a third year’s salary!
Clerking gigs can be hard work – you could be researching and writing twelve hours a day. But you’re not putting in weekends (usually), and thanks to the court calendar, there are slow times built into the schedule. Your judge could turn out to be geriatric and losing his marbles (not a rare occurrence) or simply a lunatic – but you’re still doing substantive, important work – rather than, say, researching an un-busy partner’s attempt at a treatise or frying your brain with doc review.
Clerking is a sweet deal – one good reason to do litigation instead of corporate. As a clerk, you might learn something. That’s probably not going to happen as a junior doing corporate.
Yes, there’s a catch, and it’s a whopper: Most clerkships – a whole lot of clerkships – require relocating to the middle of freakin’ nowhere.
If you’re like most educated people, you’ve absentmindedly noticed at some point that the United States occupies a wide tract of land. There’s a lot of that stuff in the middle – the zone with the empty square states they use for missile practice, and those ones in the South where they sprayed black people with fire hoses and sicced dogs on them (as featured in your high school history textbook)(unless you went to high school in the South.)
Yeah, those places.
I am scrupulously non-partisan in these columns – no one can gull me into revealing my sympathies. But I will say this: the frightful wasteland situated between the civilized portions of our nation is dominated by a political party whose platform includes a Constitutional Amendment to outlaw gay marriage. Yeah. They want to alter the founding document of our nation to bash gays. Feeling all warm and fuzzy? Get used to it. If you clerk, and your judge is posted in fly-over country, then so are you.
Welcome to the “real” America. Welcome to the wackadoodles. Welcome to wackadoodleville.
How bad does it get?
Before we start describing where you’re going, remember what you’re leaving behind. A clerkship in the land of Wal-marts and trailer parks, whatever else it entails, spells one year without your spouse, life-partner, steady friend with benefits or whatever. Whomever you’re with – if you’re traveling to Lubbock, Sioux Falls or Tupelo – they’re probably staying home.
Don’t underestimate the effect of a long distance separation on a relationship. You can tell yourself it’s only nine or ten months, not even a year, really. And you can talk on Skype all the time. And you can have sex, sort of, on Skype. But long distance living is about the worst thing that can happen to a relationship. You make the sacrifices for monogamous commitment yet reap none of the rewards.
It’s going to be worse for you. She’ll be in NYC or LA, where, if she does cheat, it will be worth the effort, and, if you break up, she can meet someone else. For you… not so much. A name like “Wichita” or “Birmingham” or “Clarksville” (wherever that is) sounds cool in a blues song, but the reality of most of these places is a burg where the available women at the local T.G.I Friday’s attend mega-churches, consider evolution a hoax and think Sarah Palin is a right-on woman (in the case of Witchita, you’ll also be visiting the corporate headquarters for Koch Industries.) What will you be doing at a local T.G.I. Friday’s? That’s where you’ll be seeking female companionship after you discover there are no other options.
First, you’ll have to find the T.G.I. Friday’s, which will be located in a strip mall amid anonymous suburban aridity. There’s no downtown in most of these places. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, the white people fled to the suburbs, along with the jobs. The poor black people who were left had no jobs, so the middle of the city became a “slum.” The answer? Slum clearance. Bulldoze the whole mess, then build a few skyscrapers and a football stadium. That’s what’s there nowadays – a few skyscrapers, a football stadium and forty acres of parking lot.
Which brings us to another issue. Other than watching tv, there is exactly one extra-curricular activity available in your new home – watching football. Opera, classical music, modern dance, ballet, jazz, theater, galleries, lectures, readings, art museums – those pastimes are reserved for communists and homosexuals. You can drink – it counts as a cultural activity – and you can watch football. That’s it. There are movie theaters in the malls, but you will need a car to get there and you’ll find a megaplex with sixteen theaters showing “Fast and Furious VIII”. No one – no one – will know who Helena Bonham Carter is. Pause, and contemplate that for a moment.
It gets worse. Americans aren’t supposed to admit this – at least white Americans – but despite what Justice Scalia says (with his astonishing legal acumen), it’s possible the issue of race hasn’t entirely melted into insignificance in this great land of ours. You know how black people are kind of mostly poorer than whites and America kind of has the highest incarceration rate in the world and a vastly disproportionate percentage of those people behind bars kind of happen to be black, and white people and black people kind of mostly live in different places and kind of don’t really see each other too much, like, socially? You know? That divide only worsens in the hinterlands. A client clerking in West Dipstick saw a famous black comedian perform at the local theater. It was something to do – a rare occurrence. The place was packed, the show was great – and he was the only white person in the theater. It was weird, having a tiny bit of fun – his first in months – while experiencing first-hand the secret poison of American apartheid.
Another annoying aspect of living in a state famous for “hollers” and “corn licker” is the classic trademark of people who live someplace no one else wants to: profound defensiveness. New Yorkers don’t rush to defend New York against detractors. They assume you’re an idiot if you don’t love it and New York is better without you. But if you’re from East Bumptruck, you’ll tackle anyone to the ground who so much as hints he might not like it there. That gets old fast. Especially when – as is usually the case – the judge hires a local clerk for appearances and that’s the guy foaming at the mouth because you hinted the nightlife in South Bumbledunk isn’t all that.
I heard about one clerk who ended up finding the closest airfield in her rural nowhere (it was in one of those “I” states…Idaho? Iowa? Illinois? Is there another one?) and taking flying lessons. I guess it was something to do. Oddly enough, she’s not the first person I’ve heard of stuck in the sticks who took up flying. It kills time – and affords you the illusion of possessing a means of escape.
My advice on surviving the boondocks? Do what you can to survive. I’d read about a thousand books, download Merchant Ivory films and pray for sweet release. That might not be your thing. Maybe you can find an airfield. Or take up knitting.
What you’ll need more than advice is someone to listen as you vent your misery. Good old Skype. Thanks to the internet, I listen to law clerk misery direct from the heartland, every week.
I feel your pain. Personally, I’m willing to venture to Brooklyn for day trips to take in local color, but cross the Hudson? Only if I’m flying to L.A. or San Fran. I don’t mess with fly-over country.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)