Above the Law

As previously discussed, getting a clerkship can be one of the most stressful things law students go through. Here’s what you’ll need in your clerkship application.

Focus on What YOU Control
With all the hype about how crazy the clerkship process is, it’s easy to lose sight of the other side of the picture – what you DO control.

You’ve got control over your application, where you apply, and, to a lesser extent, your recommenders. So let’s discuss strategies for each of these things.

Tell a Story with Your Application
Your clerkship application consists of a cover letter, a résumé, a writing sample, and your law school transcripts (and other transcripts, if requested). You’ll also need several letters of recommendation, but we’ll get to that later.

As with any application package, your clerkship application needs to tell a story about why YOU are the perfect candidate to clerk for this particular judge.

What are judges looking for? Clerks who are intelligent, hard working, and easy to get along with. Being personable is critical! Imagine having to spend an entire year working closely with someone who’s a nightmare to be around. That’s an evaluation every judge who considers hiring you is making.

In any clerkship, you’ll do a lot of legal research and writing. Therefore, your application should emphasize these skills. Consider including details on any long substantive writing you’ve done in law school or undergrad, and tailor your job descriptions to focus on your research and writing experience. Of course, your application itself should be free of typos and other mistakes, because it’s an example of your writing prowess!

Don’t neglect your cover letters. Although they’re formulaic, they’re not unimportant. At a minimum, offer some reason you’re applying for this particular clerkship in this particular location. Why are you interested in clerking for a trial judge? Why this location? It’s always nice, of course, if you have some reason for applying to this particular judge (and, if you do, feel free to mention it), but that’s not strictly necessary. What is necessary is that you convey a genuine interest in the type of court and the location. If you can’t come up with any reason you’d want to spend a year in a given location, don’t apply there. Chances are good you won’t get
the job anyway.

Finally, the writing sample. Personally, I think it’s fine to submit a slightly longer clerkship writing sample, because your writing skills are of paramount interest. So, perhaps you submit your entire Note or an entire seminar paper, instead of the 5-page excerpt that you used for your non-clerkship job applications. But don’t make
it any longer than necessary! And, naturally, it should be your own work. A heavily edited Note or brief isn’t appropriate, but an earlier draft would be fine.

Aim for Stellar Letters of Recommendation
Because a clerk’s personality is so important, having strong letters of recommendation is critical. Hopefully by the time you apply for clerkships, you’ve developed strong relationships with at least a few professors at your school. If not, you’ll have to work with what you’ve got.

Your recommendations should come from law professors who can comment with authority on your academic and personal characteristics. In an ideal world, each of your recommenders would be a well-connected, high-profile scholar, but that’s unrealistic for most students. Instead, think about professors who know you personally – as more than just a face in a large lecture class.

Some options to consider:

  • Professors from small seminar classes or clinics.
  • A professor you worked closely with as a Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant.
  • A professor who supervised your Note or for whom you wrote an extensive paper.
  • Any professor you formed a close relationship with, via office hours or other activities.
  • As a last-ditch effort, a professor who gave you an A (or higher).

If you have any doubt about whether a potential recommender will offer a strong reference, keep looking! One lukewarm letter can sink your application entirely, so be careful who you ask. But don’t be shy! Law professors expect to be asked to write letters of recommendation, and many welcome the opportunity to help students
find clerkships.

Although most professors are happy to help, they’re human just like the rest of us. (Yes, really.) They procrastinate, too, so be sure to clearly communicate all relevant deadlines, explain exactly what needs to happen, and follow up when there’s still plenty of time left. (If you can, get contact information for each recommender’s assistant, so you can follow up without having to disturb the recommender directly.)

Think Carefully About Where to Apply
Deciding where to apply for clerkships can be challenging, because the whole process is shrouded in such mystery.

First, consider your personal preferences:

  • Where do you want to live?
  • What type of court do you want to clerk on?
  • How many years do you plan to clerk?
  • Is your start date flexible?
  • Do you prefer judges of a particular political persuasion?
  • How important is the prestige factor?

Then think realistically about which clerkships you’ll be competitive for. While getting an offer from any single judge is a bit of a crapshoot (who knows if your favorite judge already hired his best friend’s cousin’s daughter), you should be able to get a general sense of where you’re likely to be competitive, based on your grades and law school pedigree. When in doubt, ask your recommenders, your school’s clerkship coordinator, or students in the class above who applied for clerkships.

It’s hard to say exactly how many applications you should submit, but it’s safe to say you should apply broadly! On the other hand, if you have a strong application, you’ll improve your odds of getting the job you really want by keeping your applications fairly focused and writing personal cover letters wherever possible. It’s a balance!
Again, ask your recommenders for advice, and talk to similarly situated students about what they did the year before.

Ultimately, it’s your call what to do. If you want to apply to every federal trial judge in ten states, you can. If you only want to apply in the Second Circuit, you can do that, too. Either of those options might work out just fine, and there’s really no way to know in advance. It is what it is, so just accept the uncertainty!

The Bottom Line
Anyone who tells you the clerkship process isn’t stressful is lying. It’s a mess, and it seems to be getting worse each year.

That being said, clerking is a great experience, and the process isn’t that bad. If you don’t get an offer initially, keep applying. Applying as a graduate, rather than a 3L, moves you to the front of the line and you’ll have more time to develop those all-important personal relationships with potential recommenders.

Keep at it, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a great clerkship!

For more clerkship advice, check out Judicial Clerkships 101: What You Need to Know to Get the Job You Want