I’ll never forget an early experience I had as a young(er) military prosecutor. Skilled defense counsel asserted a spirited, persuasive argument in a motion hearing. But I had the controlling case issued by the military’s highest court. The military judge replied, “counsel, you misunderstand the rationale of the case you are relying on.” My military discipline and professionalism hid my smirk. Just a few years before, as a post-graduate law clerk to a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, I wrote that rationale.


Let me back up.

There is a “preferred” order of operations in the big picture practice of law. Earn Book Awards (highest grade in classes). Graduate in the top 10% of your class. Earn a position on Moot Court or Trial Team.

If you can accomplish those things, secure a judicial clerkship. States judges are good. Federal magistrates or district court judges are better. Federal appellate judges are best.

The numbers don’t lie. Over 90% of law students every year don’t do this, and go on to quite lucrative and rewarding careers.

But why this preference? Prestige, for sure. Big law firms tout lawyers with clerkships to justify high billable rates. But, behind the pitch, there is a reason.

The ultimate goal of litigation is not to fight . . . it is to win. Judges control litigation and appeals. They instruct juries. Few lawyers see the legal system through the lens of the judiciary. See how the paper moves. That is what a clerkship teaches.

In 2006, I took the opportunity to observe the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces hold oral argument at Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law. It was United States v. Long, 64 M.J. 57 (C.A.A.F. 2016). That decision forced the Department of Defense to change how it surveilled service members using government computer systems.

I was hooked. And as luck would have it, the Chief Judge was retiring, and continuing his career teaching criminal law at the law school.

So, I came up with a plan. It was a ridiculous plan.

My path to law school began a little before the attacks of 9/11. I’ll talk about that elsewhere, but my return to school was to study law and serve the country that welcomed my family and provided the opportunity to build a better life.

Here was the plan. Get into Barry University School of Law. With Criminal Law being a required course, pray to be randomly selected to be in the judge’s Criminal Law course. Earn the highest grade on the final exam (the only grade you get) to have a reason to meet the judge during office hours. Get him to think you are smart, and to want to help you earn a commission in a service JAG Corps, and especially a clerkship at the Court.

IT. ALL. HAPPENED.

It was my third year. Reading week. Law schools generally give you two weeks after classes end to study before your finals, usually the only grade you earn in your courses.

Unbeknownst to me, this great American shared my resume with judges every time he traveled back to the District of Columbia to hear cases. A fellow boot wearing jurist asked about me, and there I was, interviewing for a clerkship for a judge I greatly admired on the military’s highest court.

Half way through reading week, the judge called me to see if I heard anything. He knew. But he didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Not sure how I earned the Book Award for that final exam in Federal Jurisdiction, but I got the call just before my exam.

I would be law clerk to the Honorable Charles E. “Chip” Erdmann.

Building on the time spent studying the courts with a a state criminal judge and a federal district judge–two mentors I also deeply admire and learned so much from–the two years I served Chief Judge Erdmann (ret.) taught me many things. How to think, how to write better, what happens behind the curtain. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work on substantial cases that continue to impact the military justice system. I hope to share more on those in subsequent posts. And I brought that experience to my litigation and appellate practice.

When someone says they begin with the end in mind, make sure they have seen cases from that end.

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