If you’re like most clerkship seekers, you are tempted to scratch bankruptcy court judges off of your list without much thought. “I didn’t take bankruptcy, I’m not great with numbers, and I don’t want to be a bankruptcy lawyer,” you think. “It just doesn’t add up, right?”
But wait, there’s more! It turns out that bankruptcy courts do a lot more than just bankruptcy law and can lead clerks to civil litigation and transactional positions at firms as well as jobs with corporations, investment banks and hedge funds. Plus, prior bankruptcy coursework and a PhD in mathematics are not required.
First, let’s start with the basics. Bankruptcy court judges are Article I (not Article III) judges. They are appointed by the circuit court in which their court is located for a term of fourteen years. See 28 U.S.C. § 152. Federal bankruptcy courts have exclusive jurisdiction over all bankruptcy matters. For a nice primer, visit this webpage written by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.
Of course, a quick Google search would have yielded everything above, however, what the casual Googler won’t learn is the great variety within each bankruptcy court’s workload. This is where things get interesting. When you ask bankruptcy court judges what their cases involve, they will tell you that their work involves a great deal of civil litigation, contracts, and property law. In jurisdictions that handle complex corporate bankruptcies like the Southern District of New York, class actions, environmental law, international law and labor-management relations are also in play. (For fun, check out the Wikipedia entry for the GM bankruptcy. What a wild ride.) If you are public-interest minded, clerking for a judge who sees more personal or smaller corporate bankruptcies will allow you to assist a court which seeks to help individuals, families, and small businesses re-build their lives after financial hardships.
What’s more, most bankruptcy court judges don’t require that you have taken a course in bankruptcy before you start your clerkship. Sure, it would be nice, but most bankruptcy court judges see coursework or practice experience in the area as a “plus” but not a requirement. They tend to want the same qualities which other judges seek: strong research, writing, and analytical skills; solid academic performance; and the ability to work well within a small workplace environment. Some hire clerks right out of law school while others prefer clerks with post-graduate experience. Does this all sound pretty familiar?
Finally, a bankruptcy-court clerkship is anything but a one-way ticket to a life in bankruptcy. Rather, former clerks on these courts go on to general civil litigation work, commercial litigation practice, or transactional careers with firms of all sizes. Others will land positions with investment banks, hedge funds, and in-house counsel offices.
As to that PhD in mathematics, well, that wouldn’t hurt, but really, if you managed the calculator you used back in high school reasonably well, you’re good to go in the bankruptcy court.