How to become a fashion lawyer, Part 1: Clerk! (No, wait, that's incredibly unhelpful advice. Sorry.)

Posted by Charles Colman

Law students contact me with some regularity about how to "break in" to "fashion law."  I use quotation marks here because (1) with a few notable exceptions, becoming a "fashion lawyer" is less of a "big break," and more of a gradual process (more on this later); and (2) except for in-house counsel at fashion companies, there are very few -- if any -- attorneys whose work always touches on fashion.  For example, although a majority of my firm's clients are indeed involved in the fashion industry in some capacity, just last night I filed an amicus curiae (a/k/a "friend-of-the-court," often shortened to "amicus") brief [posted here, if you're curious] on behalf of a group of scholars in one of the so-called "Google Books cases."


With that said, there are certain things one can do, starting in law school, to position oneself for an eventual career in "fashion law."  For example, TAKE A COURSE IN TRADEMARK LAW.  (You'd be surprised how many aspiring fashion lawyers haven't.)  Become involved, to the extent possible, in the relevant bar association committees and other groups.  Start to "brand yourself" by blogging about fashion law... carefully.  (Taking strong ideological positions or, even worse, misstating the law, could be fatal to your job prospects if/when a hiring committee does its digging.)  Keep in mind that until you are pronounced a lawyer by the State of [your state here]... you're not one (and even after you become one, you should make it clear that your blog posts, tweets, etc., are not legal advice.)


But the best thing you can do to move closer to your goal of becoming a "fashion lawyer" -- and be sure you know what you mean by that; it's very different to be a tax lawyer employed by a fashion company than outside counsel hired to attack or defend a company's purported red-sole trademark in court -- is to be a good law student, and then a good lawyer. Many of the ways to be a "good law student" are obvious: go to a school with a solid reputation, get good grades there, try to join the Law Review (in retrospect, I probably should have applied, but the whole thing seemed -- and reportedly is -- quite tedious), spend your summers wisely (internships at fashion houses are best saved for the school year rather than summer, as they rarely lead to jobs immediately after graduation), etc.


And if you can, clerk for a federal judge.  You are likely already aware that obtaining a federal clerkship (as opposed to a term-time internship or "externship," which can be a valuable experience but doesn't add much weight to a resume) is extremely difficult, especially right out of law school. But many people I know had much better luck landing clerkships after a year or two of practice.  Thus, at some point I began recommending to some aspiring fashion lawyers -- particularly, those who had found themselves "stuck" on the wrong track within law and needed a way to "reboot" their legal careers -- that they apply for clerkships.


After one such conversation I had recently, I began to wonder, "Is this advice completely worthless?"  Specifically, is the clerkship application process so competitive that one actually has a better shot of landing one's "dream job" (be it Associate to David Bernstein, or Corporate Counsel at Chanel, or whatever else) straightaway than the prestigious clerkship that is supposed to serve as a vehicle to get the dream job?


After listing all of the states and territories I could recite from memory (sorry, Idaho: you're the only state I needed a map to recall), I looked up the number of federal clerkships available, and applications submitted for those clerkships, in 2011 -- at least, according to OSCAR.  The results are not encouraging.  Assuming for the moment that each applicant has an equal shot of being selected for a clerkship -- which is, of course, not the case, given judges' preferences for particular credentials, achievements, and even specific hobbies -- one's chances of landing a federal clerkship in any state or territory is still less than 1%.  True, there is a range: New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania are especially tough, while (what do you know!) Idaho is somewhat more realistic.  But that range is so narrow that one should probably go ahead and dispense with the somewhat common fallacy that there are "undiscovered gems" of clerkships in some random state, somewhere out there.  [Caveat: The numbers differ significantly from year to year, based on staggered openings.  For example, in 2011, there were only four openings in Mississippi, for which 1888 applications were submitted -- making one's "chances" of landing one of the positions a dismal 0.21%. The state's neighbor, Alabama, had four times as many openings that year (16), but "only" 2784 applications, making it one of the more accessible states at a slightly-less-dismal 0.57% "acceptance rate."  In short, keep your eyes on the openings.]


I've copied a table with my calculations below.  Again, keep in mind that this chart fails to reflect numerous realities -- most significantly, the fact that applicants are not chosen at random, but rather selected based on conventional (or sometimes idiosyncratic) criteria of "achievement."  Still, in light of the information the table contains, I might think twice before recommending that someone in a legal career rut "try applying for federal clerkships."  (State-court clerkships, while not terribly useful for aspiring intellectual property practitioners, are another story, to be discussed another day.)  You're probably better off just joining the LAW OF FASHION LinkedIn group, where jobs are posted on a regular basis, and friendships acquaintances are made that will last a lifetime a few months.  And just meet as many people as possible, preferably in real life.  It requires more effort than social media, but the payoff is usually far greater.


And now, that depressing table I mentioned:


[This post is for entertainment and informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship among any individuals or entities.  DO NOT rely on the information herein to make your educational or career choices.  Any views expressed in this post or at the linked web pages are those of the relevant writer(s) on a particular date, and should not necessarily be attributed to this writer, his law firm, its agents, or its clients.  Neither LAW OF FASHION nor any person or entity associated with it, formally or informally, can or will warrant the thoroughness or accuracy of any of the content here or at the linked sites.]