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Strategies for Success – The Quest for Your Judicial Clerkship

Now that the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan is officially defunct, the timing of your clerkship applications depends on the individual hiring practices of each judge. This is another aspect of what is essentially a research project, with the primary resources being OSCAR (“Online System for Clerkship Application and Review”) for federal clerkships and Vermont Law School’s Guide to State Judicial Clerkships. See the additional tips on the timing in my first article in this series, “Putting it in Perspective: Understanding the History of the Timing Issue and Making Lemonade.”

So let’s take a closer look at the application process, the components of the application, and strategies you can employ to increase the chances of success in your quest for the prized clerkship.

1. The Application Process:

Apart from any residual confusion from the timing issues noted above, the actual process of applying for a clerkship, if done wisely and methodically, should not be unduly burdensome. Much of this depends on how you approach it, keeping in mind these fundamental aspects:

Competitiveness. Yes we should acknowledge that obtaining a prized clerkship is a very competitive situation overall; however, that does not mean you should select yourself out of the process. As they say in the lottery, “you have to be in it to win it!” Moreover, it is not nearly as random, if played intelligently to maximize the odds.

Self-assessment. First you should do an honest personal assessment, both of your credentials/level of competitiveness and your interests, along with how the clerkship fits with your future career goals. I have a list of self-assessment questions in my book, but in essence you may be drawn more to one type or level of court (trial, appellate, specialty courts) than another, which often logically corresponds to the type of positions you will seek in your legal career (litigation, appellate work, public service/government or academia).

Rule of thumb. Here is what I call the Golden Rule: Never apply to a judge with whom you would not want to clerk. Violating this rule can lead to problems down the road if and when you are lucky enough to receive a clerkship offer because another proverbial rule is never to turn down a clerkship offer (more on that in my next article)!

Research is essential. Following the Golden Rule necessitates doing your homework in advance. If you view this as a research project, you will be fine—to the extent possible you will only apply to those judges or courts who most interest you or at least don’t cause you any sleepless nights if you were to clerk for them for a year or two. Plus you will maximize your chances by taking into account levels of competiveness as to courts and judges, as well as your own self-assessment. A complete list of resources for research, including the perspectives and best use of each, is available in my book along with some key links on my website, www.judicialclerkships.com.

Check timing, requirements, and procedures of judge and court. As part of your research, you will need to ascertain this information for each judge to whom you apply. Check publicly available sources such as OSCAR first; if a judge has listed his or her information there, you are on notice of any clerkship vacancies and should not be calling the judge’s chambers for the basics. Be aware that some judges do not use OSCAR, either for their clerkship postings or for the online transmittal of the applications.

2. Elements of the Application:

Whether the judge accepts applications online through the OSCAR system or the old-fashioned mail-in method, the components of the application are relatively uniform. These can vary by judge, but in general consist of:

Cover letter. Keep it short and grammatically perfect, free of typographical or any other errors. You can personalize it for the judge but I only recommend doing this if you wish to express a sincere connection such as geographic or your interests in a clerkship for that court/judge tied to specific experiences such as a judicial internship or bankruptcy coursework. A judge or law clerk with common sense will be screening your letter, so avoid platitudes and hyperbole.

Resume. There is no need to tailor your resume specially for a clerkship, just make sure it reflects your best professional self, including any future positions you have accepted (e.g., “prospective summer associate”). However, unlike other law positions, you will have more leeway to include your interests that might strike a connection with those of the judge and add a dimension to your conversations in chambers for the year. Likewise I don’t believe in “sanitizing” your resume to remove political activities and affiliations. The relationship between judge and law clerk is usually a close personal one, and you are better off being honest at the outset and representing your true self; this approach will lead to a better fit with the judge in the long run.

Transcript. Of course an unofficial (sometimes official) transcript must be included, but you may need to take extra measures to make sure it is complete and follow up on any missing grades, particularly as clerkship deadlines move up and there won’t be as many grades there. Rather than risk an inference that you do not adhere to deadlines, attach a note to your transcript explaining that you have completed your work but the professor has not yet submitted the grade for the course—and update your application with a new transcript when your grades are complete. Now more than ever, having a strong academic record early on will be important for your success.

Writing sample. Bear in mind the type of court or judge in determining the most appropriate content and style, whether a brief, memo, or more academic analysis. All samples must be legal, not co-authored, and unedited (so use an excerpt of an earlier version if this is your note), as well as the best quality of your current writing. If it was written in an employment situation, obtain the necessary permissions, redact identifying information, and indicate these steps in an introductory paragraph attached to your sample.

Letters of recommendation. Most judges will require two or three recommendation letters, at least two of which are from a professor who knows your legal writing well. A legal employer would be fine for a third one, again choosing someone who could address your legal research and writing, as the skills of utmost importance to a judge.

3. Strategies for Success:

If you start thinking about the clerkship application process early in your law school career, you can make choices that help to shape your future path while also benefitting your law school experience:

Make an effort to know faculty well. This can be accomplished most effectively by taking smaller seminar classes; writing papers, memos, and briefs; and serving as a research assistant. In this way, your professors will become familiar with your research and writing skills, while you are also producing a potential writing sample. If possible, select courses particularly useful for a clerkship like federal jurisdiction, evidence, and civil/criminal procedure. As the clerkship deadlines continue to move even earlier, you can include a list of these courses in your application as your anticipated “future coursework.”

Try to work on a law journal or Moot Court. In addition to (and arguably more important than) prestige, these types of activities are most appropriate for a clerkship. Judges like to see that you have performed writing and editing functions as well as leadership roles in the editorial process of bringing an article to publication.

Consider a judicial externship/internship. Interning in a judge’s chambers during a semester or the summer can open the doors to the judiciary in several ways. You gain valuable behind-the-scenes experience most akin to a clerkship, the judge’s name on your resume potentially to highlight in your cover letter, and a possible mentor who may offer guidance, introduce other judicial contacts, and serve as a reference.

Be open-minded and flexible as to judges and types of courts. You may be sending out a large number of applications statistically to increase the odds of success but it is not enough or even possible to blanket the judiciary. Make those applications count most by spreading them as broadly geographically as you are able (i.e., not just to the most competitive circuits and courts) and, if possible, to less competitive courts and judges, as match your interests and career goals. For example, consider Magistrate judges, Bankruptcy judges, Tax Court, the U.S. Court of International Trade, prominent specialty courts such as the Delaware Court of Chancery, and state courts for those states where you would like to practice law in the future.

Do your research diligently. This factor can never be overstated! Investigate early and through a variety of sources, both written and oral (including professors and former—but not current—law clerks). Whenever possible, go to events that help you learn more about the courts and give you an opportunity to mingle with members of the judiciary.

Continue to try, try again. If you are initially unsuccessful, rest assured that just as the starting gate has been shifting forward, there is also no set ending date for your clerkship applications. Use your time wisely by reevaluating the elements of your application and process so far. Consider other less competitive courts and types of clerkships, expand your list by researching newly confirmed judges and keeping alert to new openings and law clerk vacancies. Remember that you can apply in waves under their different timing deadlines and even after law school. You can continue to strengthen your application in other ways such as improving your academic record, getting involved in a journal, pursuing a judicial externship/internship, or gaining other work experience.

Best of luck in your quest for the perfect clerkship! For more on each of these elements and strategies, as well as details on the potential courts, judges, and type of clerkships available, see my book, Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships. Stay tuned also for my next article, which will focus on the special aspects of the judicial clerkship interview, offers and acceptances…

Debra M. Strauss is an Associate Professor of Business Law, Charles F. Dolan School of Business, Fairfield University; B.A., Cornell University; J.D., Yale Law School. A former federal law clerk for the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the S.D.N.Y. as well as a frequent speaker at law schools and judicial conferences, she is the author of the book, Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships (BarBri Group 2002) and the website, www.judicialclerkships.com.

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