What Does a Court Clerk Do and How Do You Become One?
If you picture a courtroom, you might imagine lawyers whispering to their clients behind heavy oak desks or black robed judges with a gavel in hand. While judges and attorneys get a lot of screen time in courtroom dramas, many people work behind the scenes for a court of law to function.
Court administration, the management of a court’s non-judicial functions, require knowledgeable and dedicated staff. These administrative roles are not often in the forefront of our imagination, but are a keystone in the US judicial system.
“These are good careers,” says Karen Mitchell, the clerk of courts for Northern District of Texas. And with an aging population of current administrators, Mitchell says the field is in need of younger people stepping in.
The role of the clerk of courts was created by the first US congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Judiciary Act outlined three non-judge positions in each judicial district—the clerk of court, United States Marshal and United States attorney. The federal judiciary has changed over time, but as Mitchell states, “it was intended from the beginning that there was a person in each federal court who would manage non-judicial parts of court.”
In order for a court to uphold justice, paperwork needs to be processed, resources managed and courtrooms maintained. This slightly less glamorous side of the justice system can offer equally engaging, stable and valuable careers.
Where do court clerks work?
Court clerks work both in the state and federal court systems. At the state level, court clerks often have different roles depending on the unique guidelines put forth by the state. Like judgeships, leadership positions are often elected offices.
In the federal system, such as the position held by Mitchell, the role of the clerk of court is fairly standardized and hired by the court rather than elected by the public. The demands on the office of the clerk of courts vary depending on the size of each district and its case load. Mitchell requires a staff of 115 to manage a large district with 7 courthouses covering an area of 96,000 square miles. Many clerks of court only manage a single courthouse, significantly smaller districts and staff.
Each court clerk position presents unique and dynamic requirements; however, the essential principle of an office overseeing the function and maintenance of the court remains the same.
What does a court clerk do? Common job duties
The clerk of courts is responsible for a court’s non-judicial operations, essentially everything a court does beyond trying cases. According to U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), common court clerk responsibilities include:1
- Preparing and issuing orders of the court (summonses, probation orders, other official documentation)
- Preparing dockets of cases
- Examine legal documents submitted to courts
- Searching files and contacting witnesses, attorneys or litigants to obtain information for the court
- Preparing staff schedules
- Swearing in jury members, interpreters, witnesses or defendants
- Instructing parties about the timing of court appearances
As you can see, court clerks cover a lot of administrative ground and play an essential role in keeping courthouses running smoothly.
Additionally, advancements in information technology have transformed the system of communication, record keeping, and courtroom operations. These have shifted the responsibilities and requirements for the court clerk’s office.
Before records were electronic, members of the public needed to come into the court clerk’s office to review court records, now, this information is accessible online and maintained by the court clerk’s office. Though often unrecognized, the office of the court clerk has allowed for greater transparency in the court system.
Court clerk salary and job outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for court clerks in 2018 was $38,450.2 Court clerk jobs are projected to grow 4 to 6 percent from 2018 to 2028—right on par with the average rate of employment growth for all occupations.1
Mitchell says she has seen the staffing needs within the office of the court clerk continue to expand, requiring more sophisticated and knowledgeable workers.
Mitchell reflects that she has rarely hired anyone in her office without a college degree. “The world has changed so much,” she says. “We need people with higher skills.” The more skills a court clerk brings to their job, the greater their prospects of advancement.
In-demand skills for court clerks
So what skills are courts seeking from their clerks? We analyzed over 2,600 court clerk job postings to find out.3 It turns out it takes a blend of hard and soft skills to carry out the duties of a court clerk.
Technical skills in demand:
- Data entry
- Legal documentation
- Customer service
- Case management
- Legal document composition
- Criminal justice
- Record keeping
Transferable skills in demand:
- Attention to detail
- Computer literacy
- Microsoft Office®
- Time management
Court clerk educational requirements
You might be surprised to find that despite all that’s on their plates, there are no official educational requirements for a court clerk beyond a high school diploma. That being said, preferences are likely to vary. Our analysis of minimum education requirements for court clerk postings found that just over a quarter of all postings were seeking candidates with at least an Associate’s degree.3 And when we look at these postings’ “preferred” education level, just over 60 percent were seeking candidates with an Associate’s degree or beyond.3
If you have your sights set on becoming a court clerk, you’ll have some flexibility when it comes to subject of your studies. A Criminal Justice, Political Science, English or even Business degree can all come in handy. Mitchell states that for federal court-level roles, you’ll want to ensure you have the ability to write well.
Mitchell herself is a JD, and found the degree invaluable. “If you want to be in leadership, you need an advanced degree,” she states. “A masters, MBA, or JD make yourself more marketable.”
Because they are not highly profiled careers, many people end up as court clerks unexpectedly. This was the case for Mitchell, who was first hired as a lawyer in the court clerk’s office after relocating to Dallas with a background in risk management. Mitchell has now worked in the office of the clerk of court for 24 years.
“It has worked out well,” Mitchell laughed. “There are lots of opportunities.”
Understanding the plethora of options for stable, rewarding and interesting work available in court administration puts you in a unique position to plan a fruitful career. Preparing for the position while you are in school gives you an advantage when you enter the workforce.
Do you have a future as a court clerk?
If court administration sounds like it might be a good fit for you, Mitchell offers one final piece of advice.
“I would advise anyone,” says Mitchell. “Whatever you have an interest in get an internship. Get a sense of what it is all about.”
Working as a court clerk can provide a rewarding lifelong career. An undergraduate education that emphasizes critical thinking and real-world skills can help build the foundation for that career. Utilizing college resources to pursue internships provides additional advantages as you plan your professional goals.
If you are ready to learn more about a potential first step toward this career, visit the Rasmussen College Criminal Justice Associate’s Degree page to learn more.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, [career information accessed October, 2019] www.bls.gov/oes/.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: Court, Municipal and License Clerks [accessed October, 2019] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes434031.htm Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
3Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 2,627 court clerk job postings, October 1, 2018 – September 31, 2019)
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