Criminal Law

On the Role of the Criminal Law Clerk

August 1, 2017

In every industry, there are those who work behind the scenes to ensure that the activities of each organization are carried out accurately and efficiently. The hallmark sound of the Prussian stamp thudding against a sheet paper has for centuries announced the presence of such individuals, and while the methodology of clerical work has largely changed with the advent of the computer age, that same sound still resounds in the offices of criminal law, where the might of traditional and ceremonial custom is brought face-to-face with the fast-paced, high-tech processes of the modern age. This clash between the past and the present requires a unique skill-set to master, paramount of which are the abilities to master archaic terminology, modern mediums of communication, and above all, to develop an adaptive frame of mind.

There are a number of words and phrases which, when used properly, serve to make criminal procedures all but incomprehensible to the layman. Phrases such as “Comes Now,” and “Counsel of Record,” may cause the average reader to pause, while phrases like “In Pari Delicto,” or “Sua Sponte,” are confounding in the extreme – not the least because they are words taken from a dead language. For an effective criminal law clerk, however, such phrases and words must at the very least be familiar, as courts often demand their usage in official documents for the sake of tradition and professionalism. Even without an adept’s understanding of Latin, a criminal law clerk must be prepared to place these terms throughout legal documents appropriately and, perhaps more importantly, know when to omit these terms. Whereas the absence of these traditional terms might be tolerated by a judge, the incorrect placement of those terms might change the meaning of an entire document, and make it inadmissible to court records. So far as efficiency is concerned, there is nothing worse than being forced to do the same work twice.

While archaic terminology is a basic requirement necessary for all effective law clerks to master, one surprisingly overlooked qualification is a mastery of the modern modes of communication. This includes methods such as email, faxing and even properly formatted postal envelopes. Of these three, properly formatted and professionally appearing envelopes are perhaps the most crucial, as many courts require original documents and do not accept facsimile or electronic copies. To be familiar with proper mail-address formatting may seem a given – yet, such a familiarity implies intimate knowledge of word-processing programs and printer capabilities, as handwritten envelopes are, to say the least, unprofessional. That said, knowledge of fax systems and the process of emailing is also critical; as more and more courts begin to accept digital copies of documents, law clerks are required to be familiar with professionally structured and properly formatted e-docs.

Given the variation between what sorts of documents courts will and will not accept, the most important qualification of a criminal law clerk is that of adaptability. Understanding that each court and each judge has their own demands – and being able to meet those demands – is paramount to being an effective legal clerk. Being prepared to make use of archaic terminology or modern terminology; being capable of filing documents early enough to meet the demands of courts who require original, physical copies, vs. those which only demand electronic, digital copies; understanding how each individual court schedules hearings; even being capable of meeting the demands of other criminal law clerks – all these and more require an ability to adapt to each unique case and each unique situation. Without this adaptability, not only will the work of resolving criminal cases be compounded exponentially, but the appeal of a law clerk as an employee is inherently reduced.

In short, the ability to adapt to the requirements of any legal situation, to understand all of the modern and less-than-modern forms of communication, and finally, to comprehend when and where to use archaic legal terms, will determine the ultimate effectiveness of every criminal law clerk, whether they serve a court, a public defense association, or a private defense attorney. Indeed, while many bureaucratic and clerical positions are able to thrive on stolid and uncompromising methods, that of a criminal law clerk requires a flexibility that is, in almost every field, otherwise unknown.


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