Glitches Plague Clerkship Process

BY PANTEA YASHAR

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The reasons for the moratorium on accepting clerkship applications a year later than had been conventionally practiced were an attempt to restore order to the hiring process and provide students with an extra year to develop their skills, interests and relationships with the faculty. Federal Appeals Court judges voted overwhelmingly to support the new plan in the Spring of 2002, and subsequently many District Court judges around the nation agreed to adhere to it as well. Although this appeared to be a victory for judges, law students, and law school deans and placement directors, after the debacle of timing in sending out faculty recommendations and applications a few weeks ago, it is questionable whether the plan can be considered a true “success.”

Law clerk hiring has traditionally taken place at the beginning of the second year of law school, but this fall marked the start of a judicial attempt to defer clerkship interviews until September of the law student’s third year. Because the hiring process originally took place so early, students applying for clerkships in the beginning of their 2L year rarely had the opportunity to discover their academic interests, develop their writing skills and form significant relationships with faculty whom they were required to ask for recommendations. The consequence of this was an excessive reliance by judges on 1L grades in trying to separate the potentially “good” clerks from the less qualified ones. The new plan was introduced to rectify these issues. It could only function properly, however, if the nation’s top law schools agreed to abide by the new rules and actively encourage their students to do the same.

On August 28, Harvard 3Ls were alerted by the HLS career services office that two of their peer law schools (Stanford and Columbia) were arranging for hand delivery or express mail for recommendations to certain courts, and some students at these schools were intending to hand deliver or express mail their application packets as well. Although this did not violate the express terms of the hiring timetable, it did manage to undermine the spirit of the new plan by allowing a significant number of applications to reach judges before others. Frantic HLS students were advised that recommendations ready by September 2nd and addressed to judges on the D.C. Circuit, Second Circuit, Southern District of New York, Eastern District of New York and Ninth Circuit would be sent by FedEx rather than by regular mail at the school’s expense. To further avoid any potential disadvantage, HLS students were also encouraged to send their application packets by FedEx.

Just twenty-four hours later, the Office of Career Services sent another e-mail notifying 3Ls to revert to the original position of sending recommendation letters and application packets by regular mail. This decision came after news that Columbia had returned to the original position of sending recommendation letters by regular U.S. mail on September 2nd, and a general reluctance by the school to gain an unfair advantage over applicants from its peer schools. This decision came despite the fact that Stanford chose not to change its plan of sending recommendations via FedEx to select circuits. The Office of Career Services, along with Dean Kagan, rationalized that Stanford’s small applicant pool would not prompt judges to act before receiving materials by regular mail.

This incident proved to be particularly irritating for so many students because it was coupled with an earlier technical glitch in the application administration system that supplied students with judges’ addresses and information. Three-Ls were notified in early August that the street addresses for some judges were missing when downloaded from the administrative website. As a consequence of the missing information on the data file, applicants were forced to prepare and submit a new set of mailing labels for HLS faculty assistants, outside recommenders, and their application packets. The consolation prize for the lost time and freshly instilled aggravation was an apology by OCS and as many complimentary blank mailing labels as an applicant needed.

Three-L Mara Zusman was among the HLS students affected by the obstacles of this year’s clerkship application process. “I spent a lot of time in the beginning of the summer working on the various labels and mailing all my papers to the faculty assistants. It wasn’t just time consuming when I had to redo everything, but it made working with the assistants difficult as well.” When asked about the confusion in how to deliver application materials, Zusman added, “I would recommend revamping the timetable so that application packets and recommendations are sent no later than September 2, but judges are forbidden from reviewing anything until about a week after that date. This would ensure that everyone’s applications arrived, and there wouldn’t be any unfair advantages despite how a school or student ultimately chose to send their materials.”

Although it is still too soon to tell whether any of these problems have significantly impacted HLS students’ abilities to land the prestigious clerkships of their choice, one thing is certain: It will be some time before the specific logistics of the new hiring table are figured out, and all the technical glitches of the computer system are settled.

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