Law clerks, summer associates, interns, and externs. What’s in a name? Is it all the same? When it comes to labeling your law-related work experience in your resume, the answer is no. When putting a title on your prior experience, a student or recent grad may innocently use the terms interchangeably. But some prospective employers may deem this practice as deceptive or misleading and may hold it against the unknowing applicant. Read below for some general rules to follow.
The first general rule to go by when putting a title on your previous work experience is to go by what the former employer called the position and this can be determined by the job posting to which you originally applied. Did the posting say “Law Clerk”? Then that is how you should label this particular work experience. But sometimes the posting was ambiguous and students and grads may ask, what’s the difference? There are some general rules and definitions that can help guide you.
“Law clerk”, especially in the private sector, usually implies a paid hourly law student or recent graduate. Sometimes, in the public sector, a graduated licensed attorney will also be called a law clerk and will earn a salary and benefits. But, generally speaking, law clerks are paid by the hour and can be law student working during the school year or summers. In the legal field, the term “intern,” on the other hand, usually implies that the position was unpaid and volunteer. (In some business fields, such as with working with in-house counsel in a private company, an intern may be paid—thus you would want to revert back to the primary rule of labeling your prior work by the title the employer gave you and label yourself as an intern).
The distinction between “law clerk,” “intern” (and “extern” which will be discussed below) is very important when describing prior experience in a judge’s chambers. A “Judicial Law Clerk” is an attorney hired by the judge to work full time in chambers and for salary. A law student who worked in the judge’s chambers during the school year or for a summer, either as a volunteer or through the clinical program, should not refer to themselves as a law clerk on their resume. PDO has heard from multiple employers that such a practice is viewed very negatively. Instead, students should label the experience as an “intern” (if volunteer) or “extern” (if they earned credit through the clinical program). This, of course, leads to the discussion of the difference between an “intern” and an “extern.” Interns are usually unpaid experience, whereas externs are students who obtained their position through the law school’s clinical program and are earning credit. However, an advertised unpaid internship can sometimes be eligible for credit.
During OCI and law firms’ fall recruiting, students often ask, what’s the difference between a “summer associate” and a “law clerk.” First, for purposes of your resume, always revert to the original rule of labeling your work experience by how the firm labeled the position. Generally, “summer associate” is a term used by larger firms who hire a group of law students for a 10 to 12 week period during the summer and compensate those law students on a weekly salary basis. With summer associates, there is a general expectation that the law firm is seriously considering making offers of permanent employment to these individuals for when they graduate from law school. Law clerks, by contrast, are law students hired by law firms for the summer or during the school year, but who are usually paid on an hourly basis. Permanent, post-grad employment may still be a possibility for students taking such positions, but it is generally less assumed than it is for summer associate positions.
No matter what the experience is called, any of your experience, no matter what the label, can be, and usually is, good experience. For example, a prospective employer is not going to look down on an “intern” position simply because it was a volunteer position—prestigious internships with federal judges or agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or Federal Trade Commission are going to be unpaid internships simply because the federal government generally does not have the budget authority to pay for these students. Unpaid and clinical work experience is still extremely valuable and prospective employers know the competitiveness and value of this work. What is important is that a student or graduate know how to correctly label their work experience on his or her resume.