Clerking: View from the trenches

BY SARAH MCGONIGLE

Reality check: If you haven’t applied for clerkships already, you are behind. Sorry, but it’s true. I’m not saying it’s time to panic. But despite what the HLS clerkship interview tracking site says, Selya, Lynch, Boudin, Reinhardt, Tattle, Garland, Williams, Calabresi, Ginsburg, Cabranes, O’Scannlain, Kozinski and Ebel, are already interviewing and most have hired HLS clerks already for the 2003-2004 term.

I would never disparage the job the clerkship office does in preparing us HLS students for clerkships. But I wish going into my 2L year that I had been a little more savvy about the clerkship process — known the questions to ask and the real, no-holds-barred truth about the process. I wanted some totally straight answers to questions like: where should I look, what are my chances and what is the process really like. Here is what I have observed, having obtained a clerkship and watched dozens of friends seek, win and lose clerkships in district and appellate courts.

First of all, grades: To be blunt, they should be good — at or above the A-minus range to be in contention for “top” clerkships such as those listed above. People at the top of my 1L class (discernibly above the A-minus range) got plenty of calls. For district or so-called “lesser” clerkships, grades around or above a B-plus may suffice. In all, good grades can help you, and not-so-good grades will hurt you, but grades are not everything.

Two factors also in play are age and experience. People that came straight to HLS from college got fewer calls from judges than did students who took time off, in my experience. And the relevance of a student’s experience matters, too. If you want a clerkship in the Second Circuit, banking, consulting or accounting experience will help, while the D.C. Circuit typically favors administrative or governmental experience.

Though it may not be surprising that experience plays a role in clerkship decisions, what may be surprising is just how large a role it plays. I know young applicants who failed to get appellate interviews even though they had stellar grades. Of course, some of my friends with very prestigious appellate clerkships are 23 years old, straight out of college. But it also seems clear that some judges won’t even consider applicants who didn’t do something fabulous with years 22 through 25, before law school. Sorry, but I get paid to tell the truth.

Third, I must stress that interviews matter. If you get an interview, the job is probably yours to lose. But you can lose. Clerkships, unlike law firm jobs, are not won simply because you can successfully refrain from drooling or telling off-color jokes for an hour. Be prepared to analyze anything from Roe v. Wade to your senior thesis.

Finally, connections matter — a lot. Judges call other judges, your employers and professors, even those you did not like or use as references; likewise, current clerks call their friends to get the scoop on applicants, though you may not even know that your HLS peer is connected to any clerk. I know people who have been rude in some context wholly unrelated to clerkships — and word has filtered back at least to curious clerks that the applicant is unpleasant. Remember that the opposite is also very true, though: Lukewarm acquaintances in chambers go to bat for people they knew back when. And, in my experience, people around HLS help one another to an amazing degree, even based on tenuous connections.

Also remember that professors can help (or hurt) a lot. For example, the lore around the law school — outside my personal experience, however — is that Tribe writes three letters of recommendation per year for the Supreme Court — and that a surprising number of those recommended make the cut. Hmmm.

As for process — send your resume and grades out as soon as possible; line up letters of recommendation and writing samples later if you already haven’t done so. But please don’t take this advice and then blame me when Judge X calls you 20 hours after you put the application in the mailbox, and you have no idea what to tell her. In other words, be prepared before you do anything. You cannot put off actually thinking about where to clerk until the moment of that first call, because your tongue will be tied, and you may be asked questions like, “How serious are you about this application? Because I’m prepared to offer you a job.” Things happen quickly.

When you start getting calls, make sure to schedule interviews as close together as possible and be prepared for anything. I know someone who had a series of interviews set up and one judge said he’d make her an offer, provided that she would accept it. She said she couldn’t accept until she had fulfilled her obligation to interview with others, so the judge refused to extend the offer. Aside from such unredeemable situations, you can usually take at least a day and push other judges by calling their chambers to let them know if you get an exploding offer. If you politely ask them to interview you, they might oblige — I know people who used this method to ratchet themselves up the prestige ladder substantially.

I’d like to end this article by philosophizing about how unimportant clerkships are in the grand scheme and warn people not to get too crazy about clerking. But I’m a realist. The people who might have a chance of taking that advice will not have read this far — and the rest of you, well, you’re going to put a lot of stock into clerkships regardless of what I say. So instead I will wish you luck, perspective and happy hunting.

Comments