Unfortunately, federal clerkships often dominate the clerkship conversation, receiving the bulk of the exposure and emphasis. The result is that law students who aren’t in the top 10 percent of their class or who do not attend a highly ranked school quickly cross clerkships off their list of employment options, thinking that only the top students are hired and that clerking at any level below the Court of Appeals is pointless. However, opportunities exist both in the federal and state court systems for students who strategize, plan, and work for their clerkship goal.
Question: When is the best time to start working on your clerkship? Answer: The end of your first semester of law school. Yes, you read that correctly. The NALP guidelines provide that law schools can’t give career advice to 1Ls until November 1, and 1Ls aren’t permitted to begin looking for jobs until December 1. This is a good rule and should be followed by all 1L students—as solid grades facilitate a job search more than any résumé drop or informational interview. However, once first semester finals are over, it should be full speed ahead.
Faced with looming student loans, many 1Ls hope for a paid summer position. However, summer positions for 1Ls aren’t easy to come by and few firms actively recruit 1Ls. Students who are keen to clerk post-graduation should consider “creating” a summer clerkship position with a judge, either as an externship or as a volunteer position. Most judges do not have summer positions for law students. However, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be open to allowing a volunteer or extern to work in their chambers. First, work with your career services office to polish your résumé. Second, research and be prepared with a list of federal and state court judges in your area. Third, find out what externships exist at your school and if any of them include the judiciary. Fourth, write a very specific cover letter that explains to the judge what you are attempting to arrange. If you are willing to volunteer, state that in your letter. If you are working for academic credit, take some time to explain the basics of the program and offer to meet with the judge for more details. Most members of the judiciary are very supportive of law students and most are incredibly busy. Combine these two factors with some diligence on your part and you are likely to find a judge who will take you up on your offer to assist in their chambers.
There may be other options for students who want to get a jump on clerkships. For example, the ABA Section of Litigation sponsors a full-time summer internship for financially disadvantaged or minority 1Ls or 2Ls who want to perform legal research and writing for state and federal judges in participating cities. Some schools have programs in which alumni judges interact with students in structured networking activities. Talk to your career services office as well as your professors to investigate what options might be available for you.
Stack Your Clerkships
The number of individuals who graduate law school and immediately clerk for the Supreme Court of the United States is incredibly small. Many clerk first. If you have thought about a clerkship at all, you have likely heard or come across the term “feeder judge.” A feeder judge is a court of appeals judge who, over the course of his or her career, has had many of his or her clerks go on to clerk for the Supreme Court. Stacking is slightly different. Stacking is less about for whom you clerked and, instead, refers to clerking for a series of courts with a corresponding rise in the perceived prestige of the clerkship. A real-life example is found in a clerk who started with a clerkship in a federal district court, went on to a feeder judge in the Court of Appeals, and then on to the Supreme Court.
Stacking makes sense. There are approximately 500 clerkships for the federal Court of Appeals and 1,200 for the district courts. Compare that with more than 16,000 state trial courts, plus additional opportunities in state appellate courts, specialty courts, and supreme courts. Starting at a lower federal court or a state court increases your odds of clerking at all. Once in the position, you can build your experience and skills, making yourself marketable for the next clerkship. Perhaps more importantly, assuming you did the job well, you now have a judge who can recommend you as a clerk to a fellow member of the judiciary.
If you combine starting early with stacking, you could have your first clerkship on your résumé and your first judge on your list of references before you start your second year of law school! This is an outstanding foundation for pursuit of a post-graduate clerkship. Someone may have a higher GPA than you, but this method can help you show that you have more actual experience and outstanding recommendations from a judge.
Sprint vs. Marathon
Credentials put a small percentage of law students on the fast track to a clerkship. Due to the tremendous competition for federal clerkships (Court of Appeals in particular), the pace of clerkship hiring is extremely fast. It is not unknown for federal judges to offer a candidate a clerkship at the conclusion of a first interview and require that the candidate provide an immediate answer. Such job offers have come to be known as “exploding offers.” While a few federal clerkships come available after September, most federal judges complete their hiring before the end of October.
However, outside the fast track lie opportunities for the diligent and persistent. State court clerkships have little to no uniformity in their hiring time lines. This means that the job hunt for these positions is much longer and the applicant must monitor and meet multiple deadlines on an ongoing basis. Again, the answer is to start early. 1Ls researching summer possibilities should make note of hiring practices and time lines for post-graduate clerkships that interest them. 2Ls should start preparing application materials. Under the Law Clerk Hiring Plan, participating federal judges may not begin the law clerk hiring process until fall of the 3L year. By preparing application materials early, 2Ls will be able to quickly respond to early federal and state clerkship application deadlines. 3Ls should participate in their school’s application program or, if their school does not have an application program, learn as much as possible about how to apply for federal clerkship in the fall of the 3L year and be prepared to continue to apply on a rolling basis.