BY PAMELA FOOHEY
Are you a 2L or 3L thinking about applying for a clerkship? Are you interested, but afraid the application process is onerous? On Thursday, the Office of Career Services provided an overview of the judicial clerkship application process to a packed Langdell South.
Kirsten Solberg, assistant director of judicial clerkships and J.D. advising, began by recommending that now is the time to get into research mode and start making decisions about where you want to clerk, for whom, and in what capacity. Solberg started with the “in what capacity” question, noting that different types of courts involve different types of work. As every law student knows, to clerk for a Justice of the Supreme Court, you need to clerk somewhere else for a year. Unless that somewhere else is a prestigious federal circuit court with a prestigious judge, there is no point in even thinking about the Supreme Court.
Basically, if you think you have the resume to clerk for the Supreme Court, you should already know how to get there. But if you are like the other 99% of Harvard Law students, the question of “what kind of court” is relevant.
As Solberg explained, federal circuit courts may make more sense for people interested in pursuing academia or appellate litigation, while federal district courts are best for certain career paths, such as law firm litigation, U.S. Attorney’s offices, and other positions involving client contact and quick decision making. The work also differs: circuit courts focus on deep legal analysis and tend to have a steady pace of work with very little contact with parties before the court, while district courts handle a great variety of tasks and tend to have an uneven pace with more contact with parties before the court.
In addition to the obvious choices of federal circuit and district courts, Solberg highlighted state supreme courts and specialty courts as possibly easier-to-obtain alternatives. While potentially not as prestigious, as courts of last resort, many with certiorari processes, state supreme courts are presumed to handle cutting edge legal issues across all legal disciplines. Conversely, specialty courts are extremely focused, providing clerks with the opportunity to gain specific experience in a particular legal discipline, such as bankruptcy, tax, international trade, and corporate law. Solberg cautioned that both these options may provide less transferable experience.
Having settled on the type or types of courts to which to apply, the geography question becomes especially pertinent. While there may be a specific judge or specific court that is particularly attractive, for the most part, geography will drive your final list of judges. Solberg highlighted the tension inherent in the geography question: while clerking presents a great opportunity to live in a different place for a limited time, the insider knowledge gained through a clerkship is most valuable if you stay in that area. Overall, this tension appears to push applicants towards clerking in their chosen final work destination if they intend to clerk on the district level, for a state supreme court, or for a specialty court that is present in all states, such as bankruptcy court.
Next, Solberg addressed the judicial clerkship application components, touching on the “which judges” questions throughout her discussion. A typical application consists of a cover letter, your resume, your law school grade sheet, your undergraduate grade sheet, a writing sample, and two to four letters of recommendation. That’s right, your undergraduate grade sheet. Now would be the time to request that grade sheet, especially if you graduated from undergrad a while ago. Obtaining a grade sheet while not on campus and from an office that may have your grades stashed in some file cabinet in a damp, dark basement is destined to be messy.
In terms of writing sample, Solberg advised that for most judges, it will hurt rather than help you. Your writing sample is a chance to demonstrate that you can present a document in a well-organized, visually appealing fashion. Accordingly, it may be a good idea to write a cover letter specifically for your writing sample outlining the background of the piece and assuring the judge that you cleared its content with your law firm and that it is entirely your own work (i.e. not co-written). The content of your six to twenty page writing sample is secondary: it can come from your summer associateship, your Ames brief, or your first year legal writing course.
Finally, and most importantly, are your recommendations. Solberg noted that while the importance of grades is over-estimated by students, the importance of recommendations is under-estimated by students. On the subject of grades, Solberg said that most applicants from Harvard have a mix of B+ and A-, and that most of those applicants get clerkships. Grades in the A and A- range will help your application stand out from other Harvard applicants, but grades in B+ and B range do not preclude clerking. With these grades, it is more important to diversify by geographic area and types of courts.
In the end, it is your recommendations that will help your application be noticed. You should plan on soliciting at least three recommendations, with at least two of them being from law school faculty members. Based on Solberg’s comments, it seems that the key is to tailor your recommenders to your chosen judges. Or perhaps more realistically, the key is to choose judges based on your recommenders. Regardless, if your judges and recommenders are acquaintances of some form, you have a better chance of garnering a coveted interview. Besides developing recommendations, it also is helpful to talk with any friends and acquaintances that may have inside information about the judges on your list. Any information they may provide could prove useful in customizing cover letters.
In sum, if you are thinking about clerking, now is the time to start making your list of potential judges. Between now and August, when you will need to submit your applications packets to OCS, you can improve your chances by developing recommendations, researching your chosen judges thoroughly, diversifying across courts and geographic areas appropriately, and tailoring your cover letters.