Above the Law

It’s open season for clerkships and you’ve probably already been inundated with resources from your law school’s career office. Sure, those are the “official” resources, but don’t you want to know what it’s really like to go through the clerkship application process? This month, I probed the brain of a judicial clerkship veteran to give you the inside scoop.

1. Do you have any interview tips particular to interviewing for a clerkship?

Most of the typical interviewing tips apply. Be prepared to discuss anything on your resume, as well as any notes or other publications that you’ve authored. Show that you have an interesting, engaging, team-oriented personality – this is important because chambers are so small and it’s imperative that everyone get along well. If the judge has a career clerk, be aware that this person’s opinion may make or break whether you receive an offer; likewise the courtroom deputy and/or secretary may have input on the judge’s final decision.

Prior to your interview, you should read a couple of your judge’s more important/well-known opinions, and be prepared to discuss at least one of those opinions should the opportunity arise. Know where they stand politically. Be well-versed in recent SCOTUS opinions and other important recent legal decisions in case your judge wants to discuss them. Overall, pretty much any type of question can come up – I’ve even heard of judges asking interviewees their favorite SCOTUS justice and why.

2. When interviewing, you want to do your best and show what you can offer to the judge. Conversely, what were you looking for in terms of which judge’s clerkship would be right for you?

Try to research a judge prior to applying for a clerkship. If you’re doing a sweeping application process, this is obviously going to be more challenging. However, it’s worth taking the time to do so because so much of a clerkship experience hinges on the particular judge. It goes without saying that judges vary widely in every imaginable way – for example, the level and type of interaction they have with their law clerks, the amount of responsibility accorded to clerks, the atmosphere in chambers, hours, non-work time commitments, etc. Your school’s career office can be a valuable resource in identifying alumni who have previously clerked for your judge, and you should reach out to them to ask questions. There are also online forums that discuss judges, their personalities, any quirks, and other useful information.

3. What personal and professional benefits did you take away from your clerkship?

A clerkship is a wonderful experience because it vastly improves your research and writing skills. I became much more efficient and confident in my ability to research issues, which can be helpful if you plan to go to a firm post-clerkship. Likewise, you spend much of your time drafting opinions, and will likely become a much better writer in the process. Clerkships provide an opportunity to learn how a court works “behind the scenes,” which is also helpful for a future career in litigation. By clerking you will likely (ideally) form a close-knit relationship with your particular judge and co-clerks, and these relationships can last a lifetime.

You may also be able to leverage your clerkship experience for more responsibility in whatever job you move onto afterward. For example, following my clerkship I worked at a Biglaw firm, and used my experience to advocate on behalf of more substantive assignments, including brief drafting. By obtaining more substantive assignments, I made myself an integral part of the team, and simultaneously avoided some of the more mundane assignments typical of new associates such as document review.

4. What’s the difference between a district court clerkship and an appeals court clerkship? Should I do both?

District court clerkships and appellate clerkships each provide a unique and valuable experience very different from the other. At the district court level, you’re intimately involved with the parties and the facts of each case. In addition to researching motions and drafting opinions, you will likely have the opportunity to be involved in trial work (which includes researching evidentiary issues, observing the trial, and assisting the judge with jury instructions and any other issues that arise throughout the course of trial); as well as oral arguments on motions. The types of motions typically decided at the trial court level include motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, default judgment, attorneys’ fees, social security appeals, TROs, and habeas petitions. With a district court clerkship, you’ll constantly put into practice the knowledge you acquired in 1L Civil Procedure. Another benefit is that by spending so much time in court, you will no doubt become familiar with the procedural ins and outs of trial court appearances.

Appellate court clerkships provide a very different but also valuable experience. In this type of clerkship, you will devote much more time to reading papers (appellate briefs and the underlying record); thus many people describe this type of clerkship as being more removed from the litigants because your exposure to the parties is limited to oral arguments. During oral arguments, a panel of judges entertain arguments from each side on a limited number of issues being appealed, for a set period of time. The attorneys advocate on behalf of their position, with the judges often interrupting to ask follow-up questions. As a clerk, you will prepare your judge for oral argument by reviewing the papers submitted by the parties, researching necessary issues, attending the oral arguments, and afterward discussing and possibly drafting an opinion. You will also review opinions of other judges and provide comments or changes.

Many people consider appellate clerkships to be more prestigious than district court clerkships, but it’s worth thinking beyond this and considering what type of practical experience and skills you’re looking to gain. Do you plan to be a trial lawyer, or an AUSA/DA? Or are you more interested in appellate and Supreme Court work? Many individuals first clerk for a district court judge and then do an appellate clerkship, but the reverse order is also a possibility. Finally, certain appellate court clerkships are known as “feeder” clerkships for SCOTUS clerkship positions.

5. What about clerking for a magistrate judge?

Clerkships with magistrate judges provide another valuable experience and tend to be overlooked by law students. Depending on the way your particular geographic district operates, magistrate judges may address many of the same types of substantive issues as district court judges, and often address discovery-related motions. Magistrate judges likewise interact much more with the parties than district court (and appeals court) judges, and discovery conferences and oral arguments are a common occurrence.

6. Did your clerkships meet your expectations?

Yes, clerkships are fantastic. If you have the opportunity to clerk and can financially swing it, I highly recommend the experience. Aside from the practical/substantive litigation-based experiences that a clerkship provides, the benefits continue post-clerkship on a personal level, as many judges will become lifelong personal and professional mentors.

While many students apply to clerkships immediately following graduation from law school, you may want to consider working for a couple of years prior to clerking. More and more judges these days are interested in people with some work experience under their belt, and firms oftentimes permit associates to leave with an open offer to return post-clerkship.

7. Any other advice that you want to give ATL readers that wasn’t covered?

One note on applying- don’t be afraid to cast a wide net and apply to geographic regions that you’ve never previously considered. A one or two year term clerkship can be a fantastic way to experience a new city. Judges typically understand that clerks may lack geographic ties to an area and have no interest in remaining in the area post-clerkship. Prior to my clerkship, I had never set foot in the South. Turns out, I loved experiencing a new geographic region, including its people, culture, and the atmosphere of the city itself.

Sunny Choi is the 2013 Writers in Residence Coordinator for Ms. JD. She is a former participant in the Writers in Residence program, where her monthly column Legally Thrifty focused on beginners personal finance advice for law students and professionals. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, she currently practices commercial litigation and creditors’ rights while freelance writing and blogging in her spare time. She can be reached at [email protected]