Judge for Yourself

Regardless of what you might assume, judicial clerkship opportunities are available to all students. Find out how to begin pursuing one, whether you're in your first, second, or final year of law school—or even beyond

by Debra M. Strauss*

If you have any interest in doing so, now is the time to start thinking about clerking for a judge. It doesn't matter which year in law school you're in. In fact, it's never too early or too late to consider this valuable career option.

If you're a first- or second-year student, it isn't too early to prepare. Many clerkships are competitive, so you'll want to start planning now to maximize your chances of obtaining the best clerkship for you.

If you're in your final year of law school, you may assume that your time for applying for a clerkship has come and gone. Not so. Many judges hire law students who apply on the verge of graduating, so you still have time to compile your application materials and submit them. Plus, there's also the opportunity to clerk for a judge after you've had one or more years of law practice under your belt. More and more judges are hiring such experienced candidates.

Before you set out on the road to a judicial clerkship, think about some key questions: What exactly is a judicial clerkship? Why pursue one? Why are these positions so desirable? What can you do to enhance your chances of being hired?

A judicial clerkship is a post-graduation position with a judge or a court, in which the clerk works closely with the judge to help handle his or her caseload. A clerk's duties vary by judge and court and can include any or all of the following: conducting legal research; marking trial exhibits and advising on evidentiary issues; assisting in the drafting of opinions and bench memos; and preparing voir dire and jury instructions. A law clerk generally acts as the judge's confidant and as a liaison between the judge and the lawyers or litigants.

Most clerkships are temporary. Depending on the judge, clerkships usually last one or two years. In some instances, a clerkship continues for a longer period, typically in the category of a "career" or "permanent" clerk. Some judges start their law clerks at the same time, while others stagger the terms, resulting in a "senior" and a "junior" clerk.

There are special types of clerkships aside from these better-known "elbow clerk" positions. Many courts have "staff attorneys," also known as "court attorneys" or "pro se" clerks, who rotate among the judges of the court and may specialize in certain types of cases.

The learning curve during a clerkship is astonishing. You'll observe activity in the courtroom and behind the scenes, see models of good and bad lawyering, develop your research and writing skills, and learn the nuts and bolts of litigation or appellate practice. In working one-on-one with your judge, you'll have an opportunity to affect the law through his or her rulings.

Add to this remarkable experience the fact that a judicial clerkship can complement your future career path. Law firms, public interest organizations, and government agencies all prize former clerks. A judicial clerkship also is essential if you're interested in teaching law as a tenured professor.

Regardless of your career plans, the experience and prestige of a clerkship will keep your options open and serve you well. Your judge stays on your résumé for life. He or she can help you build professional contacts. Judges often serve their former clerks as mentors throughout their careers.

A variety of positions

Many clerkship opportunities are available, involving a large array of judges and courts. A mistake students often make is to look too narrowly and overlook the full range of courts and judges, most of whom can provide an enriching clerkship experience. To maximize your chances, be flexible in considering your options and cast a wide net.

Clerkships are available at the trial and appellate levels for federal, state, and local court systems. At the federal trial level are the U.S. district courts, including district judges and magistrate judges. There's also a variety of specialty courts such as tax, bankruptcy, federal claims, veteran appeals, and international trade. In addition, clerkships are available at various government agencies, which employ their own administrative law judges, or ALJs, to preside over administrative hearings.

Federal appellate clerkships are available for judges in each of the U.S. courts of appeals (divided into 12 regional circuits across the country), as well as the Federal Circuit with its intellectual property and patent focus. Clerkships at the U.S. Supreme Court are the most elite and competitive of all. These secondary clerkships follow appellate clerkships, typically from prestigious "feeder" judges.

Federal clerkships are only part of the picture, so don't necessarily limit your focus to them. Clerkships are bountiful in the 50 state court systems, as well as the District of Columbia's local courts. Opportunities can be found in trial courts of general jurisdiction and in courts of limited jurisdiction specialized by types of cases, such as probate, criminal, municipal, housing, juvenile, or family court. Most states offer clerkships in their intermediate appellate courts, which are far less competitive than their federal counterparts. Not to be overlooked are those available in the highest court of each state. These clerkships mirror the experience of federal appellate clerkships. They offer the potential to shape the law of a state while making contacts with local judges and lawyers, particularly useful for future law practice in your state.

Where to apply

In applying for clerkships, begin by evaluating your objectives, both for the clerkship experience and for your future career goals. Assess yourself in terms of your academic record, level of competitiveness, and interest in particular courts and judges to determine which type of clerkship experiences would fit best with your personality and interests.

Approach this as a research project, so investigate early and through a variety of sources. Your inquiry should include reviewing the background and opinions of each judge who interests you, as well as checking the application requirements and procedures of the judge and court. Attend lectures and other functions that expose you to members of the judiciary and the topic of judicial clerkships in general. Nothing substitutes for the occasion to mingle and exchange information directly with a judge. These interactions may lead to future contacts.

Factors to think about in choosing a judge to apply to may include: ideology, personality, the possibility of a mentor relationship, types of cases, level and amount of work, atmosphere in chambers, length of clerkship term, and the judge's status (chief, senior, new appointee, Supreme Court "feeder"). In considering these factors, remember an important rule of thumb: Never apply to a judge for whom you wouldn't want to clerk. To the extent you can discover this through your initial research, you'll avoid potential pitfalls later in the process for both yourself and the judges, particularly in the interviewing and offer and acceptance stages.

In your research, one thing you should check is the timing of applications for each court and judge. For federal clerkships, the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan currently provides for applications to be submitted by students in the early fall of their third year of law school, and by graduates. However, you still must investigate the individual application dates, requirements, and procedures of each judge, as well as the policies of your law school in following this plan.

For state court clerkships, application deadlines vary greatly by state, with some as early as fall or spring of the second year of law school, to fall of the third year or even later. List the deadlines of the judges and courts for which you are interested in applying, and send in your applications accordingly.

Building your record

Any student at any stage in law school can do this, even those who will soon graduate. If you're a first or second-year student, you can lay the groundwork for your applications now through your choice of activities and courses, focusing on research and writing endeavors. It's never too early to start gathering information and begin your research into courts and judges for whom you may be interested in clerking. In building your academic record and experiences, you're also gearing up for applying for a federal clerkship in the fall of your third year, or a state court clerkship before or after this time, depending on the court and judge. Doing so will also enhance your law school experience overall, so it can't hurt.

If you can, work on a law journal. For prestige, the top journal of your school usually is best, but try any journal that interests you. The experience of writing and editing is valuable in and of itself, and it will help you with developing a writing sample for any employer. Judges also look for activities such as moot court, barristers union, and trial advocacy. Another valuable experience is a judicial internship or externship, which is particularly useful toward getting a preview of the clerkship experience while you're still a law student. An internship or externship with a judge may open up doors to a clerkship down the road through the judge's potential support.

As you choose your courses, keep in mind your clerkship aspirations. Try to take some small seminar classes where you can write a paper and have a faculty member get to know your writing. Serving as a research assistant also will help in this regard. Develop your legal research and writing skills early in your law school career, over the summer, and wherever possible, through writing class papers, briefs, memos, or a journal note. You'll improve your abilities while laying the groundwork for the elements of your application: two to three letters of recommendation from faculty, writing sample, résumé, cover letter, and transcript.

Grades will play an important role, so focus on doing your best academically. But do not let your lack of top class rank discourage you from applying for a clerkship. If your grades are less than stellar, you may need to pursue clerkships that are less competitive, such as staff attorney positions, geographically remote federal courts, and state courts. Remember, plenty of opportunities exist, so don't give up before you've even begun.

Down the road

If you're in your final year of law school or a graduate, you can pursue clerkship openings as they arise, including new judicial confirmations, or plan to apply for a clerkship that may begin after you're in practice a year or two (or more). Law firms and other employers often are supportive if you request a leave of absence to pursue a judicial clerkship for a year, in the hope that you'll return to the firm with the added knowledge and experience a clerkship will bring. Some graduates pursue this path for financial reasons, choosing to work a year or two for a higher-paying employer, and then come in at a higher clerkship salary by receiving credit for the additional work experience.

Some practicing lawyers turn to a judicial clerkship as a means of transitioning from one phase of their career to another, or from one geographic area to another. For these lawyers, a clerkship can be an excellent way to get to know local laws and procedures, as well as the attorneys and employment prospects in the area. The added credential of a clerkship thus aids in attaining post-clerkship employment.

If you're skeptical about pursuing a judicial clerkship at a later stage in your career, a recent clarification of the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan may convince you otherwise. The federal courts web site currently notes that judges may hire a third-year student or law graduate for terms beyond next year. Indeed, a review of the postings on the Federal Law Clerk Information System suggests that some judges have begun their hiring for these future clerkship years.

If you have (or will have at the time you start the clerkship) a year or two of law practice, this will make your credentials attractive to a judge, some of whom require such experience. In speaking with several judges on the topic, I've learned of instances where a judge prefers to look among the law firm ranks for future clerks, perhaps to fill a clerk position that may open up mid-term or begin the next year out.

All of your experiences and interests will shape you both as a person and, ultimately, as an applicant. Your own blend of personal attributes and special background also may make you more appealing to a judge. You never know what among your credentials may spark an interest in the judge and make you a more intriguing candidate. When you research judges, you may gain further clues as to common background and pursuits, which you can highlight in your application materials.

By remaining realistic and strategically flexible, you'll find that judicial clerkships are attainable by students and graduates of all abilities and stages in law school and law practice. Ultimately, a judicial clerkship is a wonderful career opportunity that's never too early, or too late, to pursue.


Judicial Clerkships in Student Lawyer

See recent back issues of Student Lawyer for articles about judicial clerkships. If you haven't saved your copies, they're available at most law school libraries.

Review ("Recess") of Debra M. Strauss's Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships (Recess, September 2003)

"10 Simple Rules for Applying for a Judicial Clerkship" (September 2003) [click here]

"6 Simple Rules for Judicial Clerkship Interviewing" (October 2003)

"Judicial Clerkships: An Alternative Route" (November 2002)

"The Clerkship Club" (October 2001)

"The Lowdown on Landing a Judicial Clerkship" (October 2000)


Judicial Clerkship Resources

Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships, by Debra M. Strauss. (BarBri Group, 2002). Information about the courts and clerkship experiences, elements of the application and interview process, financial aspects, and preparing for a clerkship.

NALP State Judicial Clerkship Directory. Detailed information on judges' hiring criteria and practices. Available in print and online through Lexis.

Guide to State Judicial Clerkships (Vermont Law School). Overview of application procedures for state court judges. Available in print and online at www.vermontlaw.edu.

Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, Vols. 1 and 2
(Aspen Law and Business). Background on judges, including lawyers' comments. Available in print and online through Westlaw.

Judicial Yellow Book: Who's Who in Federal and State Courts (Leadership Directories, Inc.). Updated semi-annually with biographical and directory information on judges in all federal courts and state appellate courts.

Want's Federal-State Court Directory (Want Publishing Co.). Annual directory of judges, clerks of court, and more. Available in print and online at www.courts.com.

JudicialClerkships.com. Information and advice on judicial clerkships, links to key web resources, and a discussion forum for students and law clerks. www.judicialclerkships.com.

Federal Law Clerk Information System. Searchable database of federal clerkship listings. https://lawclerks.ao.uscourts.gov.

Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan. Suggested guidelines for the hiring of federal court clerks. www.cadc.uscourts.gov/lawclerk.

The Nation's Courts Directory. Links to state and federal court web sites. www.courts.net.

-- Debra M. Strauss


* Debra M. Strauss is a nationally recognized expert on judicial clerkships, providing consulting services to law schools, bar organizations, and the judiciary. She is an adjunct professor at Pace University School of Law, where she directs the Federal Judicial Extern Honors Program. You can contact her through her web site, www.judicialclerkships.com.

Reprinted from: Strauss, Debra M., “Judge for Yourself,” Student Lawyer, Vol. 32, No. 7, pp. 24-30 (American Bar Association Publishing, March 2004), available through the ABA Law Student Division.


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