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Law Clerk vs Associate

Wondering about law clerk vs associate? In the simplest terms, a law clerk is a law student who works for a law firm or a corporate legal department while in law school. An Associate is a licensed attorney/lawyer who works at a firm and is not a partner or “of counsel.”

But the issue can be more complex than that. For example, many large law firms have summer associate programs for law students. If you are looking for the difference between a law clerk and summer associate click here.

Another example is that attorneys who work for federal and many state-level appellate judges are called law clerks, while students who work for the same judges are called interns or judicial interns.

This article focuses on the difference between student law clerks and associate attorneys.

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Law Clerk vs Associate Attorney: the Details

Law Clerks

Again, law clerks are generally first, second, or third-year law students who work for a law firm that does not have a traditional summer associate program. This is one of the most prevalent types of law student jobs, with most students having a law clerk job at least once during their time in law school.

Law clerks can work during the school year or the summer. Generally, students will work part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. However, the arrangement can vary pending the student and the employer.

For example, the ABA used to have a requirement that law students couldn’t work more than 20 hours per week. It has since done away with that requirement, but many schools still enforce that rule.

Students who are attending a part-time program may elect to work full-time as a law clerk during the school year, and some legal employers will allow their law clerks to work part-time over the summer. A common example of this is when a student works as a judicial intern, which is usually part-time and unpaid, and simultaneously works as a law clerk at a firm. If you are looking for an arrangement like this, you’ll need to check with both employers to obtain permission and ensure you are not running afoul of any conflict of interest rules in your jurisdiction.

Related: The Ultimate List of Law School Essentials

Law Clerk Salary

Law clerks generally make around $20 per hour in 2022. The pay rate can vary pending on the region, practice area, and year in school.

Associate Attorneys/Lawyers

Associates are generally licensed attorneys who work for a firm and have not yet made partner. There are different levels of associates. For example, some firms have senior associates. These lawyers have more experience than traditional or junior associates, and, likewise, they have more responsibility.

Associate Attorney Salary

Associate attorney salary varies widely, which is why it is important to negotiate your starting salary. I’ve seen associate attorney salaries as low as around $50,000 to as high as $225,000. Both of these numbers are outliers. For example, the higher number is what first-year associates make at some BigLaw firms in 2022.

Likewise, $50,000 is a very low starting salary. A more realistic starting salary would be around $70,000 to $100,000.

However, it is critical to note that starting salaries for first-year attorneys vary widely, and will depend on the region, the practice area, and the size of the firm, among other things.

To get an idea of what first-year attorneys make in your market, start with a salary guide from a reputable company and talk to your law school’s career development office. All accredited law schools are required to keep statistics on each graduating class, and, while a graduate can decline to disclose, this involves asking graduates to disclose their starting salary.

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Law Clerk vs Associate Attorney Job Duties

Law clerks and associate attorneys have very different job duties. There are multiple reasons for this, but chiefly, law school doesn’t teach students how to practice law, so associate attorneys do a lot of on-the-job learning. Additionally, firms must be careful to ensure that their law clerks are not engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, and they have a duty to supervise their law clerks.

Related: What Does a Law Clerk Do?

Law Clerk Job Duties

Like many other things in this article, a law clerk’s duties will vary depending on the practice area, the student’s year in school, and a number of other factors.

Law clerks that are engaged in litigation may have the opportunity to participate in the discovery process by reviewing documents and drafting discovery requests or responses. They will also likely be assigned to write memos for associate attorneys or partners. They may also sit in on depositions or court hearings.

Law clerks may draft simple motions, but it is unlikely that they will draft any type of brief. I’ve heard of law clerks drafting motions for summary disposition and a corresponding brief, but this usually only happens with very simple matters. The more complex a case or area of law, the less likely a student will be asked to draft portions of the brief or motion. However, the law clerks may be assigned to contribute to the brief via drafting a memorandum or finding case law.

Common assignments that I used to give my law clerks include:

  • Review and catalog document production;
  • draft discovery requests, including formatting the document with case caption and inserting instructions and the like;
  • Find a case for me that says … ;
  • Draft a memo on the issue of …;
  • Draft a witness list; and
  • Pull, print, and compile exhibits with tabs.

Associate Attorney Job Duties

I’ll say it yet again: associate attorney job duties will be different depending on the practice area, the size of the firm, and the years of experience the associate has.

First-year associates will generally work under the direction of a partner or a more senior associate. They may attend simple court hearings and will usually have the opportunity to make larger contributions to briefs and more complex projects.

Associate attorneys at small firms tend to have more responsibility than associate attorneys at large firms. However, the training is generally far better at large firms than at small.

Common assignments that I used to give my associate attorneys include:

  • Sit second chair at a deposition with me and help with exhibits, note-taking, and the like;
  • Draft a section or section(s) of complex briefs or handle the first draft of a simple brief (this of course came with instructions on what to argue and how to format the brief); and
  • Most of the things listed above for law clerks, but often with more responsibility.

Associate attorneys will eventually have the opportunity to run their own cases, interact with clients, and even build their own book of business (i.e., bring in their own clients).

Related: Ways to Be the Best Law Student

Did my Law Clerk Duties Prepare me to be an Associate Attorney?

Universally, the answer for every law student who is concerned about whether their law clerk job prepared them to practice: the answer is yes and no.

Let me explain, along with my use of absolute terms, like “universally” and “every.”

First, there is only so much you can learn as a law clerk. So students who try to make others feel bad by acting as if their experience is superior are, frankly, full of it. As I explained above, attorneys need to carefully monitor their law clerks and ensure they are supervising them and giving them appropriate assignments.

It is normal to feel like you didn’t get enough experience in law school or that everyone has better experience than you. And, again, while law school doesn’t teach you to practice law, it teaches you how to learn and teach yourself. You have the tools to figure out complex problems, and hopefully, your first-year attorney positions will be at a firm where you have mentorship and resources. But if not, go work somewhere else.

I say that not to sound like it’s so easy, but emphasize how much value you have as a new attorney. Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I’m tired of employers l behaving badly, so it is important to remember that you have an arsenal of skills and that the legal market is really hot right now!

Related: Ten Things Every Law Student Needs

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