Negotiating the clerkship maze

BY KRISTIN SOLDBERG

CourtsOpportunities to clerk exist at a broad range of state and federal courts. In 2000, HLS graduates served as law clerks in the following courts:

United States Supreme Court – 4United States Court of Appeals – 55United States District Courts – 69Other Federal Courts – 4State Supreme Courts – 14Other State Supreme Courts – 3Other/Foreign Courts – 5

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. Regardless of the type of court or judge, virtually all judicial clerkships involve an extensive amount of legal research and writing. Therefore, before you apply, you should be certain that you are interested in pursuing a position that consists primarily of these tasks.

Reasons to Clerk

There are many reasons why people choose to clerk. Overall, a judicial clerkship allows you to view and participate in advocacy from the perspective of a judge. 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 employers.

Duties

The duties of a judicial clerk vary depending on the judge and the type of court. However, typical tasks 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, assembling documents, and assisting with trials, oral arguments and other court proceedings.

Timing

Most judges conduct their hiring for clerkships approximately two school years in advance. Thus, most law students apply sometime in their second year of law school for clerkships that begin immediately after they graduate. Some law students apply in their third year of law school for clerkships that begin one year after they graduate. (These students plan to spend the year doing a fellowship, working at firm, etc.) Some graduates enter the regular hiring cycle because they want to use a clerkship as a transition from one job to another or as a sabbatical two years later.

Within each regular hiring cycle, the timing for when during the year judges will start accepting applications and arranging interviews changes from year to year. The cycle last year started in early October. This year, the cycle is starting even earlier. For the most current information, please consult our website, our messages to the email listservs we maintain, and the Federal Law Clerk Information System (“FLCIS”) (described below).

Not all clerkships are filled through the regular hiring cycle. Some judges prefer to hire only one year 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.

Self-Assessment

Before you begin the clerkship application process, you should spend some time thinking about the type of clerkship you would like. Consider factors such as your ultimate career goals (e.g., civil litigation, criminal prosecution or defense, appellate practice, academia) and where you hope to practice eventually. Also consider the differing clerkship experiences in each court and which best fit your personality and interests (e.g., an appellate court involving intensive research and writing versus a trial court involving contact with attorneys and litigants, factual issues, juries and bench proceedings).

You also should think about the type of person for whom you would like to work, because the working relationship between judge and clerk tends to be close. Research the judges to whom you are thinking of applying. If you do not research judges first, you may be placed in an uncomfortable and awkward position if you ultimately receive an offer from a judge for whom you later decide you do not wish to work. This is particularly true because, unlike most employers, judges frequently require you to act upon an offer quickly — often on the spot or within one or two days.

Try to be flexible and open-minded concerning the judges, types of courts and jurisdictions to which you apply. You initially may feel swept up in the application process and compelled to apply only to highly “prestigious” courts and judges. However, judges with reputations for being respected jurists and dedicated mentors can be found at every level and in every jurisdiction. Additionally, the type of work at one level of court may be more directly relevant to the work you want to do after your clerkship than the type of work at another, more “prestigious” level. Furthermore, being willing to consider a clerkship in cities other than the most popular ones (D.C., New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Chicago), can dramatically improve your chance of getting a good clerkship at any desired level.

Grades

Many clerkship applicants ask for predictions about their chances of getting any clerkship or a certain clerkship based on their grades. We certainly understand this type of request, and we sympathize with the desire for information behind it. Unfortunately, there just is no concrete information to provide to clerkship applicants about grades.

We suggest that you 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, we encourage you to pursue that interest, choose courts and judges carefully based on your best guesses about your chances, and see what happens.

Researching Judges

One of the most difficult steps in the clerkship application process is finalizing a list of judges to whom you wish to apply. You should conduct enough research to eliminate any judges for whom you would not want to work, because in the later interview and offer stages, etiquette dictates that you accept any interview or offer you receive. (Limited exceptions may apply, but only after you have discussed the situation individually with an OCS clerkship advisor.)

Many students ask us for guidance about the number of judges to whom they should apply. Unfortunately, there is no magic number that will guarantee a clerkship. We have encountered students who have applied to fewer than ten judges (based, for example, on a priority to be in a particular small city even without a clerkship) and to as many as 100 judges (based on a priority to get any clerkship, no matter where the clerkship might be). Anecdotally, many students have fallen in the 50 to 60 range.

Researching Available Positions

Traditionally, the clerkship hiring process — at least during regular cycles — has not included announcements about specific positions. Instead, potential applicants have been expected merely to exercise due diligence in researching whether particular judges hire clerks regularly. Without much information available for applicants to use in their research, judges have been flooded with applications even when they had no available positions.

With the goal of filling this gap of information, clerkship advisors at several law schools (including HLS) have worked in coordination with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to develop a new system through which federal judges can announce available posit
ions. That system is called the Federal Law Clerk Information System, and it accessible through the website for the federal courts as www.uscourts.gov. It is far from perfect, but potential applicants should use it as much as possible to minimize pointless applications and abide by any judges’ unique preferences. Students and graduates interested in off-cycle opportunities may find it especially useful.

Unfortunately, there is not yet a comparable system for state courts, mainly because state courts have no overarching administrative body. However, Vermont Law School publishes the Guide to State Judicial Clerkship Procedures every year, which can helpful. It is available in hard copy in OCS.

Some judges contact us directly to announce specific clerkship openings. We encourage them to list such openings on our website. For now, we are continuing our tradition of distributing by email any announcements we receive about openings. We also are continuing for now to post copies of any announcements about openings on a bulletin board outside OCS.

Application Package

Generally, you apply to each judge individually and your application 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 use our database to create a datafile of judges’ contact information and then to use the mail merge function to input this data into generic letters. Detailed instructions about this process are provided on our website.

The Interview

The interview is of the 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 you send applications, you should be ready to interview at the convenience of the judge, with potentially as little as 24 hours’ notice.

Offers

The rules governing the offer and acceptance of a judicial clerkship differ dramatically from those governing an offer from a law firm or other legal employer. The main difference is that judges are not as patient as other employers. Some judges will expect a response on the spot. Others may give you more time — but often no more than 24 hours — in which to consider the offer and make your decision. Judges are accustomed to deference and assume that you would not have applied for a clerkship in their chambers if you were not prepared to accept an offer on the spot.

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, you need not be a current third-year student or clerk to apply. The justices increasingly are considering applicants who have a year or two of practical work experience either before or after their initial clerkships.

The justices’ timing guidelines with respect to interviewing and hiring are quite wide-ranging. For the October Term 2003 (or “OT 2003” in Supreme Court lingo), the earliest justices (Scalia and Ginsberg) may secure at least one clerk during December of 2001, whereas the latest justice (Souter) may wait until March of 2003 to complete his hiring. In order not to miss any opportunities, plan to send all your applications at the same time by the end of October or beginning of November, 2001. Then if you develop more information that you think would be relevant to your applications, send it as a supplement. Because of the range in hiring timing, you may have to wait for as long as 18 months with the hope of receiving a favorable response.

Sanity

Please try to maintain your sanity throughout the clerkship application process by remembering that the process is not objective and often can be random and chaotic. Judges do not have a common checklist and ranking system for candidates. While one judge may value law school reputation and grades above all else, another judge, even on the same court, may choose a friend of the family, a fellow quilter or the interviewee with the best demonstrated sense of humor. The second judge even may wind up with a better clerk!

Before you start the process of applying, be willing to accept the possible result that you will not get a clerkship and the reality that such a result is not a reflection on your ability. However, if you are not successful the first time around but you continue to be interested in clerking, do not give up! Off-cycle opportunities often arise, and/or you can re-apply broadly in a later year.

Help from OCS

The Office of Career Services is here to facilitate your search for a judicial clerkship by:

  • Providing individual counseling sessions with professional clerkship advisors (who have completed judicial clerkships themselves) and peer advisors (who have secured judicial clerkships for after graduation);
  • Providing a variety of formal and informal panel discussions, meetings and other sessions relating to judicial clerkships and the application process;
  • Maintaining files on individual judges and courts;
  • Distributing announcements to email listservs for each clerkship term about timing guidelines, specific clerkship openings and other useful information.

If you would like to be added to one or more of our email distribution lists about clerkships, please contact Kirsten Solberg at ksolberg@law.harvard.edu and be sure to specify the term in which you have interest.

Our goal is to make the clerkship application process as smooth and painless as possible. Please contact us with any questions or concerns you have. Good luck!

Information about judicial clerkships is now on the Office of Career Services’ website at www.law.harvard.edu/ocs. Excerpts from the website are provided here, but please refer to the website for more details about each point. Kristen Davis can be reached at kmdavis@law.harvard.edu or by calling (617)495-1628. Kirsten Solberg can be reached at ksolberg@law.harvard.

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