I Work for the Bankruptcy Court

I Work for the Bankruptcy Court

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While on vacation on a cruise ship somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, my wife and I had the pleasure of dining with a group of senior citizens from New York. While enjoying our after-dinner drinks, I was asked by one of the ladies at our table what I did for a living. Sometimes I am reluctant to disclose my occupation because of the misconceptions many have about bankruptcy courts. However, that evening I was feeling at ease with the company, and I just blurted out "I work for the bankruptcy court." After it was established that I was the clerk of court, the lady from New York exclaimed, "Oh, you're a clerk typist." She quickly added, "How nice to have a useful skill." The conversation quickly moved to discussing the next day's activities before I could correct another misconception about the 21st century bankruptcy court—that the court only employs clerical staff.

Today's bankruptcy court employees represent a wide cross-section of professions and occupations. The one occupation that is no longer represented in the bankruptcy courts is the clerk typist, or data entry clerk. The modern bankruptcy court, like other federal courts, employs lawyers, managers, automation professionals, professional trainers, human resource managers, accountants, procurement specialists, administrative analysts and paralegals. A growing number of employees have college degrees, and many courts are successfully recruiting employees with advanced degrees. The demands of the information age require courts to build and maintain highly skilled staffs. The court needs the best and the brightest to meet the demands of the future.

Compensation Packages

To attract the best and brightest, the courts offer very competitive compensation packages that are the envy of many in the private sector. Federal health and retirement benefits are fast becoming the model for the rest of the country. The federal courts also offer flexible spending accounts, long-term care insurance and public transit subsidies. Although federal pay caps hinder recruitment at the higher levels of the organization, most positions compare favorably with the private sector. The national average salary of bankruptcy court employees is $43,400. At the top of the organization, the clerk's salary is capped at $121,600, plus locality pay, which ranges from nearly 9 percent to more than 20 percent, depending on the area. Federal court employees also enjoy federal leave benefits. As you will discover as you read on, exciting and challenging careers exist at all levels of today's bankruptcy court.

The stereotype of the clerk's office employee surrounded with rubber stamps and busy recording entries on paper ledger forms is a relic of the past.


The bankruptcy judges' staff appears, at first glace, unchanged for more than 20 years. Judges still have law clerks, courtroom deputies and judicial assistants. However, the incumbents of those positions are required to be computer literate and adept at online research. Judicial assistants and courtroom deputies must be highly skilled paralegals with strong organizational skills. Law clerks must be able to navigate through the complex world of cyberspace and be fluent in the use of standard office software. Because of the specialized nature of bankruptcy law and the increased complexity of litigation, many judges are opting to hire career law clerks instead of term appointees. Some judges have elected to staff chambers with two law clerks in lieu of a judicial assistant for the same reasons. Salaries for judicial assistants and courtroom deputies can surpass $60,000. Law clerk salaries can exceed $100,000 in some areas of the country.

Clerks of Court/Court Managers

At the top of the clerk's office staff is the clerk of court. No longer an office manager, that position is now the equivalent of a CEO. Clerks of court manage highly complex organizations and are responsible for multimillion-dollar budgets. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, nearly 50 percent of all current clerks of court will be eligible for retirement by June 2007. Faced with a talent drain of historic proportions, the judiciary is seeking to improve compensation packages to attract top executives to the courts. Clerks of court are supported by a cadre of executive staff that generally includes chief deputies as the top executive officers, followed by divisional managers and supervisors. Salaries for chief deputies and high-level managers can exceed $100,000. Supervisors can earn upwards of $60,000, depending on the level supervised.

Case Administrators

The stereotype of the clerk's office employee surrounded with rubber stamps and busy recording entries on paper ledger forms is a relic of the past. The clerk's office still keeps the record of the court, but most of the clerical activities of the clerk's office staff have been replaced by technology and outsourcing. Most bankruptcy notices are now served by a company in Virginia. Attorneys are increasingly filing and recording documents over the Internet. The core of the modern clerk's office now consists of case administrators carefully monitoring case activity, assuring quality control and assisting attorneys with procedural matters. Case administrators are qualified paralegals whose legal knowledge is essential to the administration of bankruptcy estates. Salaries for case administrators range from $30,000 to more than $50,000.

Administrative Staff

Bankruptcy courts must have a knowledgeable administrative staff to manage their financial and personnel operations. As mentioned above, courts employ accountants, analysts, procurement officers, staff attorneys and human resource managers to meet administrative needs. Many courts employ professional trainers to meet training requirements of court staff and the bar. Depending on qualifications and experience, salaries for administrative staff range from $30,000, to more than $80,000.

Automation Staff

Bankruptcy courts are increasingly reliant on their computer systems to manage ever increasing workloads. Electronic filing is just the latest system our automation staffs must support. To attract experienced and qualified automation managers and technicians, courts are offering recruitment bonuses up to 25 percent of salary in addition to the standard federal package. Salaries are also competitive with system administrators earning upwards of $60,000, programmers more than $70,000 and IT directors and managers earning nearly $100,000. Automation staff are also eligible for 25 percent retention bonuses that can boost salaries to well over $100,000.

Advertising Vacancies

The courts use local and national media outlets in advertising vacancies to reach the broadest possible cross section of the local and national community. In addition, the courts make full use of the Internet by posting vacancies on the U.S. Courts' national web site, http://www.uscourts.gov, and through local court web sites. The national site has links to all local court web sites. Also available on the U.S. Courts' web site is the Federal Law Clerk Information System, which contains a national database of federal law clerk vacancies.


Bankruptcy courts have always been blessed with knowledgeable and experienced staff. As we became more automated, our existing staff learned new skills, and the court hired new technical personnel with skills heretofore only required by Silicon Valley firms. The clerk's office has changed from a strictly clerical operation to a highly specialized team of paralegals, managers, administrators and systems administrators. Chambers have changed from a manual, paper-driven operation to an automated and electronic information environment. Courts are now faced with losing much of their workforce through retirement in the next 5-10 years. It is imperative that courts attract highly qualified and experienced applicants to succeed those that built this magnificent organization. And the next time someone says to you, "I work for the bankruptcy court," you will be aware of just what that means.

Journal Date: 
Tuesday, April 1, 2003