Growth Trends for Related Jobs
Salary of a Federal District Court Law Clerk
Landing a federal district clerkship is something law students dream about. Any clerkship provides valuable work experience, but clerking for a federal district judge is a prestigious position. Clerking gives new attorneys the opportunity to learn from top judges and be part of groundbreaking cases. The typical federal clerkship salary is fairly generous too – which only makes these positions harder to get.
Law clerks are typically recent law school graduates who are hired to assist judges with their cases. They're not assistants in the sense that they just do clerical work – a law clerk may play a role in determining the judge's rulings. A law clerk assists a judge with paperwork, creates legal documents, meets with other attorneys involved in cases, researches past cases and laws that are related to the cases the judge hears and writes reports that lay out those findings, among other duties. Clerks may also make suggestions and talk over cases with judges, which is a priceless learning opportunity for a new attorney.
Judges who preside over different types of courts hire clerks, but being chosen by a federal district judge is considered a major accomplishment. The United States is divided into 94 districts, each with its own federal district court. In the hierarchy of the U.S. court system, district courts are below the U.S. Supreme Court and above county or local courts.
District court clerkship requirements are strict. Candidates have to meet criteria laid out by the Judicial Conference of the United States. To be appointed to this position, you must be a law school graduate or have certification from your law school stating that you've completed all requirements and are just waiting to get your degree.
You must also meet at least one of the following criteria: You're in the top third of your law school class; you were on the editorial board of your school's law review; you graduated with an LLM degree (a type of advanced law certification); the hiring judge deems that you're proficient in legal studies. Individual judges have the discretion to make that determination. Clerkship candidates must also submit to an FBI fingerprint check and sometimes other background checks.
Your law clerk salary is determined by the Judicial Salary Plan, or JSP. This system sets pay rates for clerks based on pay grades, steps (how long you've worked in the court system) and geographical location. District law clerks are classified as either JSP-11, JSP-12 or JSP-13. The higher the grade, the higher the salary. The base pay for a law clerk at JSP-11, step 1 is $53,062, as of 2018. But you'll earn more if you have more experience and/or work in a place with a high cost of living – for example, a JSP-13, step 1 clerk working in San Francisco earns a salary of $105,335 per year, as of 2018.
A district court judge may employ just one law clerk or hire a few clerks. These jobs are full-time and may require more than 40 hours per week, including nights and weekends. This is a serious role, and law clerks work in conservative environments, so expect to dress in a suit every day.
Years of Experience
It's expected that recent law school graduates will only work as law clerks for one or two years. District judges sometimes hire permanent clerks, but these are usually short-term jobs. But a district law clerk may get a salary bump or two during his or her tenure, thanks to the steps of the JSP pay scale.
Job Growth Trend
The number of district court clerkships isn't going to change much, because there are only a limited number of district judges working at any given time. In 2017, there were just 667 permanent judgeships in the district courts. These jobs will continue to be hard to get, even for top law students.
- United States Courts: Court Role and Structure
- United States Courts Online System for Clerkship Application and Review: Qualifications, Salary, and Benefits
- United States Courts: Judiciary Salary Plan Base Pay Rates - Table 00
- United States Courts: Judiciary Salary Plan San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA - Table SF
- United States Courts: U.S. District Courts Additional Authorized Judgeships
- United States Courts Online System for Clerkship Application and Review: Duties of Federal Law Clerks
Kathryn has been a lifestyle writer for more than a decade. Her work has appeared on USAToday.com and Indeed.com.