MC Law Gaining National Reputation for Successfully Placing Students in Federal Clerkships
When her civil procedures professor explained to her class how a federal clerkship is a tremendous learning experience that offers valuable insight into the judicial process and provides practical familiarity with the litigation process that could benefit young attorneys throughout their careers, Sonya Dickson wasn’t interested.
At the time, the first-year law student from Peoria, Arizona, was focused on practicing law as soon as possible and couldn’t conceive of taking the time to clerk – even at the federal level – once she had obtained her law degree.
During the summer after her 2L year, she had a change of heart. While interning for a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, she had the opportunity to draft orders and observe a variety of court proceedings. The idea of pursuing a prestigious federal clerkship suddenly piqued her interest.
“My clerkship was one of the most amazing opportunities I have been given,” said Dickson, who clerked for Judge Kristi Johnson (Law ’08) in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi from 2021-22. “I gained lifelong friends and unforgettable experiences. Our chambers was like a family, and we had a lot of fun, but also worked very hard.”
As a term clerk, she managed cases, communicated with Johnson and her co-clerks about deadlines and various issues, and drafted orders regarding dispositive motions and other topics for the judge to review and rule on. Dickson and her co-clerks attended pre-trial conferences, drafted jury instructions, and communicated with the counselors.
“I improved my writing and communication skills, as well as my interpersonal and verbal skills, by working with others who have different writing styles and perspectives on issues,” said Dickson, who also received her B.S. in psychology from MC and now served as an associate attorney at Forman Watkins & Krutz in Jackson. “I also learned about the litigation process from the perspective of the court and the practical considerations of practicing law.”
As a first-generation law student, McKenna Stone Cloud was eager to make the most of her legal education. After starting her college journey as a dance major and obtaining her B.S. in communication studies from the University of Southern Mississippi, the Biloxi native didn’t have much background in the law. She wanted to gain practical experience that could shape her into a proficient attorney.
“I decided to pursue a federal clerkship to understand legal procedures better, hone my legal research and writing skills, and learn from some of the brightest minds in the country,” said Cloud, who currently clerks for Judge Leslie H. Southwick of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Her one-year clerkship will end in August 2023.
Her duties include helping Southwick navigate the lifetime of cases on appeal – from the time the appeal is filed to the Fifth Circuit to the moment a final opinion is published. “Often, I am helping him answer an overarching question: ‘Did the lower court get it right?’” she said.
Cloud also writes bench memoranda for Southwick and other judges on his panels, researches legal issues, attends oral arguments, and drafts and edits opinions – “which always are elevated by Judge Southwick’s deft pen,” she said.
“When people ask what I do as a law clerk, I usually tell them, ‘I’m like a ghostwriter.’ My name isn’t featured on a Fifth Circuit opinion, but I can say I had a hand in its publication.”
Immediately following the Mississippi College School of Law’s Commencement this spring, Kelsi Baldwin was offered the opportunity to start her federal clerkship early. The summa cum laude graduate from Flowood serves as a judicial law clerk for a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. As soon as she completes that federal clerkship, she will begin another with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Serving two federal judicial clerkships is a rare privilege – an exceptional accomplishment that Baldwin, who received her Bachelor’s in political science and English writing from MC, doesn’t take for granted.
“When I was offered the chance to start my clerkship early, I jumped on the opportunity, and my appreciation of the judiciary has grown substantially in my short time here,” said Baldwin, who will join Dickson as a litigation associate at Forman Watkins & Krutz in Jackson when her clerkships have been completed. “A federal clerkship offers the unique ability to view the legal profession from the court’s perspective. This insight allows young lawyers to soak up and adopt the practices of highly successful legal practitioners.
“A federal clerkship refines academic abilities and sets individuals up for success. After all, a clerk is the right hand to the federal judge. Who better to learn from than the individual wearing the robe?”
The Mississippi College School of Law is gaining a reputation as one of the country’s most successful law schools for placing graduates into federal clerkships. According to Frank Rosenblatt, assistant professor of law, “Between last year’s class and this year’s, we are getting very close to being one of the highest federal clerkship feeder schools in the county.”
That list includes Stanford Law School, Yale Law School, the University of Chicago Law School, and Notre Dame University Law School, among other well-known educational institutions. Rosenblatt said MC Law ranks closely behind the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, which placed 8.81 percent of its graduates in federal clerkships in 2022. He noted that the MC Law Class of 2022 boasts three U.S. Court of Appeals clerks – “which gives us a percentage that’s better than many elite and national law schools, and perhaps unprecedented in our tier,” he said.
Federal clerkships are prestigious, year-long positions that are viewed as key credentials for other highly sought jobs, such as large firm associate positions and law professorships.
“That’s a big deal, and it’s definitely a springboard for a career path,” said Jay Armstrong, MC Law director of admissions. “It’s a foot in the door to potentially have a judgeship later in their career.”
Relatively few law graduates have the opportunity to land federal clerkships. According to the American Bar Association, only 3 percent of the 36,078 law graduates in 2022 are clerking for federal judges.
Not everyone who receives a federal clerkship heads to judicial chambers directly out of law school. Some federal judges hire law students for clerkships that won’t begin for a year or more, allowing the brand-new attorneys to gain experience before starting their term.
Rosenblatt credits Ellen Robb, MC Law’s director of career services, for her instrumental role in the school’s impressive success in placing students into these prestigious federal clerkships. A former clerk herself, Robb provides strategic insights that set MC Law students up for success.
“Only the top students, academically speaking, are considered for a federal clerkship,” Robb said. “If a student is thinking, ‘One day, I’d like to go back to my home community, work for a few years, and run to become a judge,’ if that’s their ambition, then it’s a good idea to try to clerk for a judge after law school.
“Two of our students who just graduated said they want to be a law professor one day. With that type of goal, they probably need a clerkship to help them be considered for that opportunity. A lot of it is up to the student. They need determination and drive to get it done.”
Rosenblatt said MC Law’s physical location gives its students a leg up on federal clerkship opportunities. Because several courts are within walking distance of the school, students have plenty of opportunities to meet judges at social events and internships.
“MC Law’s most recent placement rate of 6 percent of graduates into federal clerkships would be the envy of many of the most prestigious law schools in the country,” Rosenblatt said. “But it is not just federal clerkships: several of our graduates were also picked for highly selective positions as clerks for the Mississippi Supreme Court and Court of Appeals – two courts also within walking distance of MC Law.”
The duties and functions of a federal judicial law clerk are determined by the employing judge. In most chambers, law clerks concentrate on legal research and writing. The Judicial Conference of the United States establishes the minimum qualifications for law clerks, but judges can impose additional requirements for the position.
“You’re going to be learning from the judge, learning how the court operates, the record of what the attorneys present, and what’s required of them for your briefing,” Robb said. “It’s a good learning experience. You’re going to learn from seeing what other attorneys have done and listening to what your judge has to say.
“The judge you clerk for can be a good mentor and a good reference. If you’re clerking for an appellate-level judge, you’ll see the record, you’ll get to see what a deposition transcript looks like, and what the trial court rules are. If you’re clerking for a circuit court judge, you’ll see several criminal proceedings and trials, perhaps some civil ones, too.”
Cloud calls the clerkship experience “the best year of my life.”
“I loved law school, but I love practicing law even more,” said Cloud, who will begin practicing healthcare transactional law with Baker Donelson in Jackson when her clerkship ends. “This has been the perfect environment to discover my areas of interest and develop confidence as a young attorney fresh out of law school. Judge Southwick has been an incredible mentor, showing me how to objectively view a case from both sides to reach the right result and teaching me how to work respectfully and professionally with colleagues despite disagreeing perspectives.
“Clerking has made me a better researcher, writer, oralist, and analytical thinker. I have explored different types of law – criminal, civil, immigration, and administrative – and learned firsthand how the legal system operates. This experience has affirmed my passion for law and for helping others as an attorney.”
Robb has one important piece of advice for law students who hope to serve a federal clerkship one day: apply early and often.
“The application process is strenuous,” she said. “The students who are going to be working for the Fifth Circuit a year from now have already applied. You have to be on the ball. Unfortunately, some top candidates missed an opportunity because they didn’t apply in time.”
“It’s an honor to get an interview, even if you don’t get the job. It’s a good idea to reach out to someone with a federal clerkship, talk to them about their experience, and discuss strategies they may have used to obtain the clerkship. You won’t go wrong in doing a federal clerkship, so anybody who meets the qualifications should apply.”
Robb said MC Law’s high federal clerkship placement rate proves its students can compete with any other law school in the country.
“MC Law students may not realize it, but students from Harvard, Yale, and other top law schools are applying for these clerkships right here in Mississippi because they are so few and they are so coveted,” she said. “When there are hundreds of students applying, just to get an interview is impressive and shows how qualified the judges think our students are – not to mention that we have had so many placements.”
Those who have been successful in obtaining federal clerkships understand the role MC Law played in positioning them for success.
“Attending MC Law helped me build a connection with my federal judge, who is also an MC Law graduate,” Dickson said. “During my interview, he and I were able to discuss and reminisce about our time at the school.”
“MC Law put me in the best position to achieve my clerkship dreams,” Baldwin said. “The faculty and staff supported me at every turn.”