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INTERVIEW: DEVON A. CORNEAL, JUDICIAL LAW CLERK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEWJERSEY

A close-up of a gavel and the weights of justice.

Devon Corneal is originally from State College, Pennsylvania. She graduated from State College Area High School in 1990, and then attended The College of William and Mary from 1990-1994, where she played collegiate volleyball for a season before leaving the team to focus on her studies. Devon graduated with a double major in Religion and Comparative Politics, which means she had nothing to talk about at the dinner table for a very long time.

Looking to follow her interest in children’s issues, Devon enrolled in the graduate program of Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University in 1994. There, she studied child and adolescent development and family relationships, with an emphasis on adolescence. To that end, she worked as a research assistant for numerous projects and as a Prevention Research Fellow in what is now the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. After receiving her M.S. in 1997, Devon was named a Presidential Management Fellow and spent two years with the United States Department of Health and Human Services using her research background to assist in the development, coordination, and analysis of policies relating to children, youth, and families and with the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Center developing grant proposals for initiatives for the National Juvenile Defenders Training Center. This experience clarified her long-held desire to pursue a law degree, but worried that she was too old to start law school, she consulted with a trusted mentor who bluntly told her, “Well, in three years you’re going to be thirty-one no matter what you do, so you might as well go.” It turned out to be very good advice. Devon enrolled in the Seton Hall School of Law in 2000.

During her law school career, Devon was a University Scholar and Managing Editor of the Law Review. Devon came to love oral advocacy and was named Best Oral Advocate and, with her partner, won First Place in the William E. McGee National Civil Rights Moot Court Competition in 2003. She also was named Best Oral Advocate, won Best Brief, and was a finalist in Seton Hall’s Gressman Moot Court Competition in 2002. Devon won the Advanced Student Writing Award for best scholarly paper by a graduating student, was a member of The Order of the Coif, and graduated magna cum laude from Seton Hall in 2003.

From there Devon clerked for the Honorable Joseph E. Irenas, United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and then for the Honorable Walter K. Stapleton, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 2005, Devon accepted a position as a litigation associate with the law firm of Sidley Austin, LLP focusing on appellate law and civil litigation. Devon remained in private practice at Sidley Austin and then Patton Boggs LLP until 2013, when she left the legal world to pursue her passion for writing. For two years, Devon’s articles on child development, family relationships, parenting, education, poverty, health/wellness, children’s literacy, and the intersection between women’s personal and professional lives appeared in nationally recognized publications including the Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Real Simple, Cosmopolitan, and Penguin Random House’s website ReadBrightly.com.

Just when she thought she had left the law for good, in 2015, Devon got an unexpected opportunity to return to the federal family as a law clerk for the Honorable Susan D. Wigenton, United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. Proving she knows a good thing when she sees it, Devon jumped at the chance and put aside freelancing for a new challenge. She’s never looked back. Devon is now Judge Wigenton’s permanent law clerk and spends her days writing opinions; communicating with litigants and counsel; preparing for and attending trials, interviewing, hiring, and working with interns; and occasionally, when she’s very lucky, eating her colleagues’ amazing baked goods. Her docket includes media worthy criminal matters (Bridgegate, Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino), fairly mundane contract disputes, and everything in between. She’s learned to expect the unexpected and to appreciate the fact that clerking gives her the opportunity to do what she loves best about the law – wrangle with interesting and meaningful questions to reach an equitable and just decision. The fact that she doesn’t have to bill her time anymore is an added bonus. Devon hopes that she is proof that no matter how winding your path, and no matter how eclectic your interests, if you choose wisely, the law can be a challenging, rewarding, and fulfilling career.

Describe a day in the life of a career clerk.

I’m a morning person, so I tend to get in to Chambers at 8 a.m. before anyone else arrives so I have time to look through our docket, have a cup of tea, and prepare for the day. Mid-morning I meet with the Judge to address any issues that need to be handled, and then spend most of my day writing. Because our docket includes civil and criminal cases, every day is different, which keeps things interesting. I use our interns to help with legal research and work with my fellow clerks to untangle any thorny legal questions. Chambers is a very collaborative and collegial place, so I have the great privilege of working closely with extremely talented people every day. Several times a week we’re in court for trials, oral arguments, sentencings, pleas, and arraignments. Because I start early, I tend to leave the office by 5 p.m.

What initially attracted you to this field? Describe your career path.

I was initially attracted to the law because I wanted to become a juvenile defender and work on children’s issues through the courts. When I went to law school I realized I loved everything about the law – from civil procedure to constitutional questions to international human rights. I also did well in my courses, which opened doors I didn’t think were available, like multiple federal clerkships and the opportunity to do high level appellate work at a firm. After many years of private practice, though, I realized the intense pressure and tight deadlines of firm life were not for me and, thankfully, I was able to return to clerking which allows me to balance my personal life with richly rewarding and challenging professional work.

What are some of the rewards and downsides of this area of law and the legal profession?

Clerking is a fantastic job if you: 1) enjoy learning about new areas of the law on a fairly regular basis; 2) are a people person who can work collaboratively in an intimate environment; 3) are self-motivated and independent; 4) enjoy writing and can juggle multiple writing projects at one time; 5) want to balance your personal and professional lives. The only downside I see is that you won’t make as much money as you will at a law firm, but I’ve learned that a law firm salary comes at a price.

Do you have any advice for an undergraduate interested in pursuing this body of law and the legal profession?

I think my advice is the same for anyone entering the legal profession, whether it’s clerking or private practice or policy work, is the same. Hold tight to what interests you and what your goals are and pursue them no matter how many distractions come your way. If you want to work in big law – go for it. If you’d prefer to do policy work – focus on that. If your heart is set on public interest work – don’t let anyone talk you out of it. It’s easy to get distracted by big salaries or prestigious positions and miss out on the chance to pursue your passion or create a niche for yourself that will provide you with long-term satisfaction. At the same time, be open to all possibilities. The law offers so many opportunities – things you may never have even considered, so keep your eyes open and be flexible.

Contact Information

Devon is happy to answer questions and is reachable by email at: Devon_Corneal@njd.uscourts.gov

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