The clerkship crunch

BY KIRSTEN SOLBERG

Introduction

A judicial clerkship is an excellent foundation for any type of legal career. A clerkship provides the unique opportunity to work as basically an assistant judge (although purely behind-the-scenes), typically at the beginning of a legal career. Clerks generally serve for a one-year fixed term, although some judges hire clerks for two-year terms.

Students choose to clerk for various reasons, usually relating to both the experience itself and the value of clerkship credentials. The experience itself enables one at least to (1) refine and improve analytical, research, writing, communication, organizational, and interpersonal skills; (2) gain exposure to a breadth of substantive and procedural law; (3) engage in a strong, supportive, mentoring relationship with a judge; (4) gain a unique perspective into how judges think and how chambers and courtrooms operate; (5) review attorneys’ written work-product and learn from both good and bad examples; (6) observe attorneys’ in-court performances and hear the judge’s evaluation of their performance; (7) become a member of an active network of former law clerks; and (8) spend a year or two after law school exploring career options.

Because of the experience, training and connections clerks gain, a clerkship is a credential valued highly by law firms, public interest organizations, law school faculty recruitment committees, government agencies, corporations, and other types of employers.

The duties of a judicial clerk vary somewhat depending on the judge and the type of court. However, typical duties include reviewing pleadings and briefs, conducting legal research, writing memoranda and draft opinions, editing, proofreading, providing oral briefings, and observing court proceedings. The position also may include administrative duties such as maintaining the chambers’ library and assembling documents, as well as assisting with trials, oral arguments and other court proceedings.

Timing

In the last decade or so, most judges conducted their hiring for clerkships approximately two school years in advance. Thus, most law students applied sometime in their second year of law school for clerkships that would begin immediately after they graduated. Each year, the process crept earlier and earlier into students’ 2L year as judges competed with each other for the best students. In the fall of 2001, some judges started reviewing applications in August for clerkships that would not begin until 2003. This schedule was bad for everyone. Two-Ls interviewed with judges at the same time they interviewed with other employers for summer jobs. Judges had little information to consider beyond grades from students’ 1L year.

Several judges recently took the initiative to shift the hiring cycle significantly – to start it only one year in advance of the actual clerkships instead of two years in advance. Thus, most law students would apply in the fall of their third year of law school for clerkships that would begin immediately after they graduated. This plan has caught on within the judiciary and within law school so that, at least for 2004, clerkship hiring will start only one year in advance – thus, in the fall of 2003 for 2004 clerkships.

Not all clerkships are filled through the regular hiring cycle, however. Some judges prefer to hire less far in advance so that applicants have more developed records. Some judges develop openings unexpectedly when, for example, a person previously hired becomes ill or has an extreme change in personal circumstances. Additionally, new judges are appointed to the bench periodically and need clerks without much lead time for hiring. The challenge in applying for clerkships outside of the regular hiring cycle is simply identifying openings.

Grades

Many clerkship applicants ask about their chances based on their grades. This type of inquiry is understandable. Unfortunately, there just is no comprehensive information to provide to clerkship applicants about grades. Observations based on anecdotal information are as follows.

Although some judges screen applications initially by grades alone, they usually will not publicize the fact that they do so, let alone provide an objective cutoff that applies year to year without regard to the particular applicant pool. That said, the more applications a judges receives, the more likely he or she is to screen using some objective factor such as grades. (Consider how you would handle hundreds of applications if you were a judge!) Judges in popular locations receive the most applications and therefore are the most likely to screen based on grades.

Other judges look at grades as only one component of an application. If all other parts of two applications were the same, better grades would of course lead to better chances in the clerkship lottery. The problem is that no two applications are otherwise the same. Sometimes part of an application will appeal to a judge in a way even the applicant cannot predict. For example, one HLS clerk bonded with her judge over their mutual interest in quilting, a hobby she had listed on her resume but not one she had seen associated with the judge in the research she had done.

You therefore should consider grades as only one way to distinguish yourself among other clerkship applicants. If you have all As, for example, your application may get attention based on grades alone. But if you have more average grades, your application may get attention based on the Harvard name, strong recommendations, and/or (for at least one judge) an interest in quilting. If you are interested in clerking, pursue that interest, choose courts and judges carefully based on your best guesses about your chances, and see what happens. Also feel free to consult with the clerkship advisor in OCS for individual advice.

Application Process

A typical application package consists of a cover letter, resume, law school (and sometimes undergraduate) transcript, writing sample and letters of recommendation. The cover letter and letters of recommendation involve some complicated logistics because they should be addressed individually to each judge. The most efficient way to produce this result is to create a data file of judges’ contact information and then to use the mail merge function to input this data into form letters. Detailed instructions about this process are provided on the website.

An interview is of utmost importance in the clerkship selection process. Scheduling clerkship interviews can be particularly tricky because many judges hire clerks on a rolling basis, and applicants are expected to pay their own travel expenses. Once applicants send their materials, they should be ready to interview at the convenience of the judge, with potentially as little as 24 hours’ notice.

The rules governing offers for judicial clerkships differ dramatically from those for other types of legal jobs. The main difference is that judges are not as patient as other employers. Judges are accustomed to deference and assume that one would not have applied for a clerkship in their chambers without being preparing to accept an offer on the spot. Some judges actually will expect a response on the spot. Others may give a successful applicant more time – but often no more than 24 hours – in which to consider an offer and make a decision.

U.S. Supreme Court Clerkships

Practically speaking, a clerkship at another court – almost always a federal circuit court of appeals, but very occasionally a federal district court or state supreme court – is a prerequisite for a clerkship at the Supreme Court. Generally, the justices hire students in their third year of law school (or during their clerkships, depending on the individual justice’s timing guidelines) to begin clerking at the Supreme Court following the completion of their lower court clerkships. However, the justices increasingly are considering applicants who have a year or two of pra
ctical work experience either before or after their initial clerkships.

Clerkship Advising

The Office of Career Services has one staff member – Kirsten Solberg – who served as a clerk herself and handles advising about clerkships. Watch for a variety of formal and informal programs throughout the year covering topics such as the clerkship experience itself, the application process, interviews, clerkships at specific courts and how to succeed in a clerkship once you have one. Try to get in the habit of checking regularly the “Time-Sensitive Announcements” within the clerkships section of the OCS web site.

[Extensive information about judicial clerkships is on the Office of Career Services’ website at http://internal.law.harvard.edu/ocs/jdstudents/Judicial_Clerkships/index.htm. Excerpts from the website are provided here, but please refer to the website for more details about each point.]

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