Working directly under the supervision of a Supreme Court Judge has its own charms and prospects. This career path has been around for a long time and it is only in the past few years, that students have started actively choosing it as a career option right after graduation.
Even though, judicial clerkship is just a means and not the end-goal for a law student (more on that, later), the kind of experience you get in the process is exhilarating and opens a lifetime of opportunities if done right. So, how can you successfully initiate a career as a judicial law clerk-cum-research assistant? Let’s find out!
In conversation with
Currently serving as a Law Clerk-Cum- Research Assistant to Hon. Mr. Justice Vineet Saran, Judge, Supreme Court of India.
A graduate of the 2018 batch of Campus Law Centre.
In order to pursue a career as a judicial clerk, you need to go through a two-stage selection process. A written test (preparation for which is complimentary to that of judicial services exam) and an interview before a panel of esteemed Supreme Court Judges. It is believed that for students aiming to pursue LL.M, this career can be a stepping stone. However, how true is that and what kind of work can you expect if you decide to march on this journey? Read further to get a detailed insight.
Two-stage selection process: What to expect?
a) For the written test
The legal portion of the written test comprises of 20 questions each from Constitutional Law, IPC, CrPC, The Indian Evidence Act, and CPC. When I took the exam in 2019, the level of questions asked had changed drastically and required the candidates to have a sound grasp over their fundamental understanding of these five laws.
In my opinion, one should invest at least a couple of months in their preparation for the written exam. I relied heavily on bare acts and the books which are usually prescribed for the Delhi Judicial Services Prelims examination and tried to analyze the provisions in terms of their potential to generate questions. I also supplemented bare acts with the latest landmark decisions of the Supreme Court. I would recommend that the prospective candidates go through the bare acts at least 3-4 times.
For the Clerkship exam, one must be well versed with current legal developments and current affairs as well as general knowledge. Since the examination comprises solely of objective type questions, the main focus should be on keywords of the bare acts and thorough practice of objective type questions. For the General Knowledge portion, I would recommend going through the Pratiyogita Darpan Yearbook for the relevant year.
b) For interview round
The interview panel is comprised of three Hon’ble Judges. I was interviewed by a panel headed by Justice N.V. Ramana and comprised of Justices R. Bhanumathi and A.M. Khanwilkar. The Hon’ble Judges started by asking me about my time at law school and my work experience. Thereafter, I was asked questions on various areas of the Constitution, Civil Procedure Code and the Companies Act.
Usually, the panel puts you at ease with yourself and enables you to express yourself naturally. One must be extremely respectful and humble in their interaction with the judges, as not only are they testing your legal knowledge, but are also looking for candidates who would fit well in a judge’s chambers.
c) You don’t select a judge; a judge selects you
Candidates who clear the exam are barred from applying to individual judges. The application forms of the successful candidate are circulated amongst the Judges and they choose the ones best suited for their chambers.
The kind of work you can expect
Working as a Judicial Law Clerk has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.
However, every Justice at the Supreme Court of India has a distinct style of working and follows a different judicial philosophy. One’s work as a law clerk at the Supreme Court of India depends almost entirely on the judge one is assigned to – while some are given numerous, meaningful responsibilities, others do little or no work. The Judicial Staff of every Supreme Court Justice comprises of four young lawyers called Law Clerks.
a) Formalities before joining the office
There is no formal orientation process for law clerks. A day prior to the one’s first day in office, a law clerk arrives at the residence of the judge, as judges in Delhi typically work out of offices attached to their own homes. After reporting at the judge’s residence, the law clerk is shown around the office, and introduced to the judge, who might tell the law clerk what is expected of him or her. The clerks also sign a short undertaking which outlines terms of employment and tells them about their obligations of confidentiality.
b) Responsibilities involved
The primary responsibility of Supreme Court law clerks is to prepare a short summary (usually no longer than a page) of Special Leave Petitions (or “SLPs”) filed under Article 136 of the Constitution. The summary note usually addresses the facts of the case, the question of law, the submissions and what the governing case law is. SLPs are heard by the Supreme Court on every Monday and Friday. This is usually considered to be the main job profile of a Supreme Court law clerk.
c) You can make a difference, too: How?
Law clerks also carry out legal research assignments for their judges, on issues selected by the judge. Sometimes judges ask law clerks and interns to carry out exploratory research where the lawyers’ research appears to be deficient. Research notes are frequently relied on by judges to write the judgment in a case.
Further, law clerks write speeches for their judges. Judges are often invited to attend a number of conferences, lectures, seminars, and other speaking engagements all over the country, especially on the weekends, and it is the task of the law clerk to write the judge’s speech. Judges use the speeches written by the law clerks only as a template, and sometimes end up breaking away from the script entirely to narrate personal experiences and anecdotes.
d) Major takeaway
Office of a Supreme Court Judge teaches you many lessons on discipline, punctuality, impeccable integrity and ability to work for justice delivery without fear or favour. The advantages are both personal, including development of confidence, maturity and; professional, which includes the acquisition of “important lawyering skills,” such as development of research proficiency, refinement of writing skills, and the acquisition of knowledge of the rules, procedures, and decisional process of the appellate courts.
A means and not an end-goal
A clerkship is considered as a means as it is not a full-fledged career option and the usual term of a law clerk is for a period of 1 year, but the same can be extended further if the judge so desires.
Since the job does not require any post- qualification experience, one can either join straight out of college or after having gained some work experience, which is why most of the Clerks are recent graduates. A judicial clerkship is a great way to bridge the gap between law school and a career in litigation, academia or in judicial services.
The multi-dimensional approach that the law clerks acquire while working on a wide array of matters across different fields and areas of law results in a significant increase in the skill set and knowledge of the law clerks. One gains the ability to grasp, process and interpret vast, diverse and often complicated propositions of law.
a) Pursuing an LL.M afterwards
A judicial clerkship serves as a nice hiatus between law school and the subsequent careers in law. However, it must be said that the primary motivation for students who apply for a Supreme Court clerkship is pursuing an LL.M. at a top law school in USA or UK.
Supreme Court Clerkship is perceived to be a stepping stone for getting into an LL.M. program at a top ten law school. Since judicial clerkships are considered highly prestigious in the US, admissions departments at American law schools consider judicial clerkships in other countries to be valuable as well, and students from India have begun using clerkships to win valuable CV points in their US LLM applications.
However, due to an increase in the number of law clerks each individual judge can take, and an increase in the number of judges at the Supreme Court, I believe that bagging the LLM seats at prestigious law schools will get more competitive, as every law school has a specific quota earmarked for law clerks.
Law and language are the most frequently traded commodities at the Supreme Court. Therefore, it is imperative for law students to not only have a good grasp of the fundamental concepts of law as well as on their writing and verbal abilities.
The ability to articulate even the most complex legal issues clearly and succinctly in your summary notes and opinions is extremely important for a law clerk. While in Law School one should soak up as much as one can.
Master your legal concepts and your command over the language. Write and publish as much you can. Mooting is also extremely important. While mooting is not a pre-requisite for landing a clerkship, it gives one a sense of what it means to be in a court room and helps one develop that quality of being able think on one’s feet. Internships are also important. Internships give one quite an insight into how legal offices function and the opportunity to survey the legal scene from the shoulders of experienced lawyers and judges.
It is also important to park one’s ego at the door, particularly important in a judicial clerkship. While you don’t have to be told to treat the judge with respect, you’ve got to be just as careful with co-clerks and the judge’s secretary and the administrative staff.